Cuban food is heavily influenced by Spanish, African, and Caribbean flavors, and you'll that the country's trademark is simple meals with easy to source—or substitute—ingredients. Since an American trade embargo came into effect in the 1960s, food has been complicated in Cuba. Import restrictions and government policies have taken a toll, and the nation’s diet changed as a result.
Nowadays, rice, beans, and sandwiches are staples. Chicken, pork, and seafood dishes make regular appearances on restaurant menus as do a variety of tropical fruits and root vegetables.
Cuban food tends not to be wildly spicy, which has earned it a reputation for being bland. Still, it can be flavorful, and you might be pleasantly surprised by the spice you find. The secret is to keep an open palate and to stick to straightforward dishes that are simply-prepared with readily available local ingredients.
It doesn't take more than a few hours to notice that pork plays a prominent role in many Cuban menus, and there may be few better ways to experience Cuban pork than with a traditional lechon asado. Lechon asado is roast suckling pig. It’s traditionally prepared by roasting a whole pig until the skin is crispy. Lechon asado is a favorite at Ivan Chef Justo, a restaurant with rooftop dining that’s just around the corner from the Museo de la Revolucion in central Havana.
Moros y Cristianos
Moros y Cristianos is a staple Cuban side dish of black beans and white rice. You’ll find this one on most if not all restaurant menus. For a delicious moros y cristianos with a view, try the Azucar Lounge overlooking Plaza Vieja in Old Havana.
Tostones are twice-fried plantains. Plantains—an item you’ll find all over Cuban menus—are smashed and formed into delicious little cakes that are fried and then deep-fried. They can be topped with things like guacamole. Mas Havana, just outside Old Havana in the central part of the city, adds both guacamole and shrimp for one of the best-reviewed tostones dishes in town.
Costillas is Cuban for baby back ribs and may be one of the most mouth-watering meals you can come across in Havana. These juicy pork ribs are marinated with sour orange, lime, oregano, garlic, and olive oil sauce, giving them a sweet tangy taste. Try it at Paladar Los Mercaderes or El Chanchullero de Tapas.
Ropa vieja is shredded beef simmered in a tomato sauce with green peppers and onions. The meat is simmered to the point it almost falls apart. Dona Eutimia and Habana 61 are two of the top places for this classic Cuban dish. Dona Eutimia earns rave reviews for its ropa vieja with lamb meat and serves up frozen mojitos to accompany your dinner.
Think of this one as Ropa Vieja's sibling. Vaca frita is beef marinated in lime, garlic and salt then seared until crispy. Dona Eutimia, El Rum Rum de la Habana, Paladar Los Mercaderes are some of the best spots in the city to try this Cuban favorite. For delicious vaca frita with a view, try Azucar Lounge, which has a balcony overlooking Plaza Vieja in the heart of Old Havana.
Fishing is big in Cuba, and it shows in its seafood. Fresh fish, octopus and the like are on menus across Havana's paladares, which tend to form close relationships with their favorite fishermen. Paladar Vistamar, Casa Mia Paladar, and La Taberna del Pescador are some of Havana's best places for daily seafood specials. Additionally, lobster may not be the first thing you think of when you think of Cuban food, but it’s a popular menu item and a relative bargain compared to other parts of the world. Cafe Brown is considered one of the best lobster deals in town.
Sandwiches are popular in Cuba—really popular—and the mixto is a staple. This Cuban sandwich combines thinly sliced ham with slices of roast pork, swiss cheese, pickles and yellow mustard pressed between pieces of Cuban bread. Order yours with a fresh juice and a view at Cafe Bohemia in Plaza Vieja in Old Havana.
Arroz Con Pollo
Sometimes, there's nothing better than a simple local dish, and that's exactly what arroz con pollo is. You'll find arroz con pollo—also known as chicken and rice—on restaurant menus across Havana. Cafe Brown and La Concordia both get good reviews for their arroz con pollo, but La Concordia serves its arroz con pollo up with sunset views from a gorgeous balcony.
Flan is a Cuban dessert staple made of sugar, milk, and eggs and covered in caramelized condensed milk. The thing that differentiates Cuban flan from flan in Mexico and Central America is the use of evaporated or condensed milk. In Cuba, fresh milk is hard to come by and usually reserved for small children, so condensed and evaporated versions are often substituted in for fresh milk in recipes. La Taberna del Pescador, a small paladar in Old Havana, and El Idilio in Vedado are two of your best options for trying this Cuban dessert staple.