Contributor: Sarah Arizaga
Economic reforms in Cuba in 2011 lead to a wave of new private restaurants opening in Havana and across the island. With this came an expansion of options and thankfully, some of these options are foods ethnic to Cuba. Cuban food in most cases is actually quite simple and delicious but after many plates of platanos, yuca, and beans and rice, the palate needs some different stimulation and variety. I was excited to try ethnic restaurants in Havana not because of any aspirations of authentic (or as authentic as my California tastebuds expect) cuisine, but more as a curiosity and to break up the monotony of congri. Also, I love to try Mexican food in every country I visit so I can marvel at the strange uses of ingredients and sauces that reflect the local cuisine rather than anything you would taste in Mexico or California.
I have not included Italian restaurants here, because second to Spanish food it is so ubiquitous that it hardly qualifies as “ethnic” so I will save it for its own post. Rest assured there are plenty of excellent Italian restaurants throughout Havana.
Calle 1ra No. 237 between A and B, Vedado (facing Malecon) +53 5 5924333
This Lebanese restaurant owned by Syrian immigrants is one of my favorite restaurants in Havana or anywhere really. I can’t get a falafel sandwich this good where I live, and the hummus and babaganoush are excellent. There is belly dancing and live music on certain days each month. They also deliver!
What to Order: Falafel, chicken shawarma, hummus, babaganoush and baklava for dessert.
Buena Vista Curry Club
Calle Tejadillo #24, on the corner of Calle Cuba, Old Havana +53 7 8627379
Say what?! An Indian restaurant in Havana? We tried the samosas, chicken tikka, and masala sauce here and found they lacked the zest and rich flavors we expected, but the Indian family dining next to us was very complimentary of the food, so what do we know? The recent Trip Advisor reviews are excellent, so it’s worth a repeat visit to see if we can find something worth raving about too. They have live music nightly from 8:30pm-10:30pm.
What to Order: Chicken Tikka, butter chicken, naan
Malecon #25, 2nd Floor, between Prado and Carcel, Old Havana + (537) 8602947
This Canadian-Cuban venture serves Soviet-style food, something very nostalgic for Cubans who lived or studied in Russia or who remember the time before the “Special Period” when shelves in Cuba were stocked with Russian products. There are a surprising number of locals who dine here, and you can see them get teary eyed as the house songstress belts out Russian tunes that bring them back to their time abroad. Although I’m showing you a picture of my salad because it blew my mind to have something more than tomatoes and cabbage, don’t despair- it’s not the only culinary highlight. They have classics like caviar, borsht, stroganoff, etc. and even make their own sour cream! Bonus: Enjoy your meal with a gorgeous view of Havana bay.
What to Order: Ensalada olivie, pilmeni siberiano, stroganoff, cotleta a la Kiev
El Burrito Habanero
Calle 13 on the corner of M, Vedado
This Mexican restaurant is dear to my heart, not because of the amazing food, but because of the effort they put into making me a plate of vegan nachos (long story) which ended up being shredded vegetables over “tortilla” chips. To this day the memory of those sad-looking but thoughtfully-prepared nachos brings a smile to my face. El Burrito’s impressive menu spans the Latin American continent and is priced in Cuban Moneda Nacional for locals. It’s a great place to grab a cheap bite and may be the only place on the entire island where you can get chilaquiles. The food is actually good and satisfying, but not what you expect. For a more tourist-aimed Mexican food experience you can try Los Compadres, with locations in Vedado and Playa. Tacos are the new trend in Havana, so there are many hip new restaurants that proudly feature this much beloved contribution from our closest neighbor. The best tacos I’ve had (in or out of Cuba) were at El Dandy in Old Havana.
What to Order: Sampler platter or their strange but good chilaquiles
Aguiar #261b between San Juan de Dios and O’Reilly +53 78642252
One of my go-to restaurants in Havana, I eat at Jama every trip and it’s where I bring the random tourists I meet on the plane. This hidden gem with a non-descript exterior and no signage to date is finally gaining popularity for its colorful Pan-Asian fusion cuisine. This is one of the few places I will order sushi, it’s mostly vegetarian and beautifully presented. My other favorite is the sweet potato soup, wonderfully spiced with ginger. Jama is part of the O’Reilly 304 and El Del Frente family, so you can get the same quality cocktails and hipster vibe here. The stand-outs are Jama’s freebies: mariquitas (plaintain chips) sprinkled with cilantro and sesame seeds, green onions or cucumbers marinated in soy sauce, house-made limoncello digestif, plus a flower for the ladies to make you feel pretty.
What to Order: Sweet potato soup, thai shrimp, sushi, pork belly tacos
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