Latin America

Vegetarian Cuban Cuisine: from 5 cents to 5-star

Today’s post comes to you from STA Travel Student Ambassador, Tristan Davis, who is also a student at NYU and an avid budget backpacker. For Spring Break, Tristan and 3 friends headed to Cuba for a 10-day trip of a lifetime!

Cuba_OldHavana_Shutterstock

Vegetarian Cuban food, from beans and rice to paella and plantains, is delicious and inexpensive — and it’s all local! Eat out, carefree, in this fresh and inexpensive paradise. Here are some tips to get you started:

Until the late 1990’s, private property and business was forbidden, therefore all restaurants were government owned. This made prices incredibly inexpensive, that way all Cubans could afford it. However, despite the communist parties strive for absolute equality, there were still those who had the means to open secret, private restaurants in their homes, called ‘Paladars’.

Even though privatization is now allowed, government-owned restaurants remain, still offering incredibly affordable meals. Even new private restaurants are priced very well. The legendary Paladars are no longer a big secret, some have become tourist traps, but still boast the most expensive cuisine — but still for a reasonable price by American standards.

*Remember: 1USD = 1 CUC = 24 or 25 CUP (as of April 2017). 

Havana

Food in Havana is very well-priced,  and entrees at restaurants in the main squares and areas (Vieja, San Francisco, des Armas, etc) are usually $10 or less. Even beautiful restaurants inside hotels right next to the Capitol building do not get much more expensive that this.

And if that’s not your scene, wander into Centro Havana for locally-owned or government-subsidized restaurants, where you’ll find $1-3 entrees, street sandwiches and corn for less than $1.

Havana Cuba

Wash it down with some freshly blended or squeezed juice, which people sell out of their homes for 5 CUP = 20 cents of a $/CUC. Near the Plaza des Armes market, there’s an outside-only bar and grill, where we purchased 25 tostones for $1. Tostones are starchy plantains, cut in fourths, fried, flattened, and fried again, served with garlic, salt, and ketchup. They are delicious, and incredibly filling. We got so many, that we gave some to the people waiting in line behind us, and to a random drunk on the street who was heckling some other tourists.

Plaza de Armes MarketStreet vendors also sell frituras, which are fried dough balls filled with vegetables and spices, or cheese.

Our first night, I had really incredible fried mushrooms with peppers and cheese. I also ordered a side of yucca, and sweet plantains, and a salad all for $10, which was a steal considering it was a really nice restaurant, with live music, and the portions were huge!

Vegetarian dining Cuba

Our second night, we ate at a quiet restaurant, just 4 tables outside, in a little alleyway near the sea. My friend had sunny-side-up eggs over rice, and I had cheesy vegetable risotto.

A few trucks in Havana were selling an amazing vegan desert: frozen coconut cream. Coconut milk and water is whipped and then frozen inside the coconut, like a sorbet.

Our last night, we went to a Paladar, one of the old secret restaurants in Cathedral square (not so secret anymore, but still tucked away in the back of an alley). I had vegetable paella, salad, tostones and a mojito all for $12.

Veggie Paella Cuba

Vinales

This humble town has many touristy Cuban and Italian restaurants on its main street, which are also pretty inexpensive. We were further away from the main street, and were in a hurry to get lunch and go, because our horse-tour of the tobacco fields was in an hour. My vegan friend and I had a feast: beans, rice, beans and rice, and pineapple rice. And of course, a pina colada in a pineapple. It was so much food we wanted to take it back to our Airbnb, but they didn’t have any to-go boxes (most places don’t) so we had to get creative.

Cuban breakfast

Trinidad

The city of fresh juice and ice cream!

In Trinidad, there was ice cream on every corner, in every flavor you can imagine, and many I’d never heard of, like Mantecado (a Spanish shortbread cookie) and Mamey, a strange, blood-red yam-like fruit. Ice cream in the plaza major was $1 for one scoop, $1.50 for two scoops, but near our Casa it was only 50 cents, and if you walk all the way to the city limits (about 10 blocks from the city center), you can get a scoop of ice cream for just 12 cents.

Ice cream Trinidad Cuba

Make sure to try some fresh juice! At many places, you simply pick the fruit you want, hand it to the clerk, who will blend it for you. If you bring your own bottle, you can take it to go! Prepare to see some fruit you’ve never encountered before, such as Guanabana, and Mamoncillo… the tastes and textures are indescribable.

Got some really great Flan at a little touristy spot called “Mojitos” not too far from the Plaza Major. We just poked in to buy water, and ended up staying for dessert and drinks.

Cuban flan

Freshly-spun, and pipin’ hot Churros– even better than Madrid. Perfectly fried, sprinkled with sugar and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk.

Cuban churros

We decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner on our last night in Trinidad, at the Iberostar Hotel, which charged $15 for roasted red peppers stuffed with rice and carrots, served with a whipped pumpkin sauce, and then a heaping bowl of mushroom risotto. Our meal also came with complimentary h’orderves: a tiny fried quail egg, and a pumpkin-stuffed pickle, as well as a large bread basket.

Cuba Iberostar hotel

Cuban food may not be as renowned as French or Italian food, but it sure is delicious! It tastes even better, knowing that it’s all organic, and that it isn’t going to burn a hole in your bank account. Whether it’s 5 cents or 5-stars, Cuban food is sure to be the best bang for your buck, every single time. The food perfectly pairs with the lively music, beautiful buildings, and hospitable people. I never wanted to leave, and I can’t wait to go back, and explore the rest of this enchanting island!

Authored by Tristan Davis – STA Travel Student Ambassador