vegetarian flag

June, 2019

Contributor: Sarah Arizaga

Yes, you CAN eat vegetarian in pork country! You won’t waste away to nothing, and if you know where to go, you might actually find your new favorite meal. Unlike in the old days (by which I mean only about 6 years ago) when my vegetarian diet in Cuba consisted mostly of cabbage salads and rice and beans, yucca, and school cafeteria grade pizza or spaghetti. No, my friends, these days it’s (cue the Aladdin music) a whole new worrrrld!

Salad - Lots of this back in the day

Lots of this back in the day

Havana has really stepped up its culinary game, and there are not only things to please grass-eaters, but some even cater to the gluten-free crowd! There are veg-friendly restaurants all over Havana, and even in the provinces you can find good options, like La Redaccion in Trinidad, La Berenjena in Viñales, and El Romero in Las Terrazas. Not only are Cuban entrepreneurs seeing the value in opening vegetarian restaurants (for locals too) but also they are adding more vegetarian items to their regular menus, and highlighting these for their customers. For example, in Castas y Tal in Centro Havana, they thoughtfully put a green dot sticker next to the vegetarian items. “Big whoop” you might be saying to yourself, but trust me when I say this is major progress in Cuba. Sweet!

Vegan in Cuba still isn’t as easy as here in the U.S. – depending on how strict you are you have to play the high-maintenance tourist game of 20 questions ordering. My vegan times in Cuba were definitely more of a struggle.  If you’re a really strict vegan, I suggest you eat at a strictly veg/vegan restaurant so you’ll be happy knowing your meal didn’t share counter or grill space with a carcass or cow juice. Or just relax and know that you’re a guest in this country and you’ll survive. Either way, without further ado here are a few of my favorite places to eat vegetarian in Havana.

Camino al Sol

#363 3rd Ave corner of 2nd street, across from Melia Cohiba Hotel, Vedado

Camino al sol

This. Place. Is. The. Business. It’s like being back home in my crunchy natural food cafe. Camino al Sol is a tiny bright little vegetarian deli that has colorful and fresh plant-based food and house made pastas. The stuff you’ll find here is the stuff that meat eaters imagine vegans eat - looks weird tastes great. I love it!

What to Try: Cremas (soups), smoothies, fresh pasta, and their weird vegetable pie thingies. 

El Shamuskia'o

308 Muralla, corner of Compostela, Old Havana

El Shamuskia'o

The second exclusively vegetarian/vegan restaurant on this list, this place is also tiny, like maybe four tables. It looks a little like a seedy bar with walls covered in graffiti, newspapers, and vintage records. The menu leans more towards rustic, hearty fare. Don’t get me wrong, the place is a bit rough looking but I had some great comfort food there. The croquetas are very non-croqueta-ey (brown logs of legumes and vegetables), but they tasted quite good. They’d make a good vegetarian burger patty.

What to Try: Boronia (a stew of garbanzos and squash) total comfort food. 

California Café

Calle 19th between N and O, Vedado

California Cafe

Owned by a married couple, he a Cuban and she a Bay Area native, California Café is a small little shack with options for carnivores and herbivores using fresh local ingredients. This is my go-to for a guacamole craving, they do it right! And you never knew how mariquitas (fried plantain chips) could elevate your guacamole eating experience far more than the common tortilla chip. The other thing they do an amazing job at is hummus. If you’ve got a pescatarian in your group they make what might be the best ceviche in town. I gotta warn you though, I’ve been here a lot and the quality isn’t so consistent. The veggie burger wasn’t the greatest either, but that may have been an off day. Bonus for this place, the owner is one of the nicest ex-pats I’ve met in Havana.

What to Try: Guacamole and Hummus

Lo de Monik

Chacon and Compostela, Old Havana

Lo de Monik

Oh, Monik, I don’t know who you are but I have a crush on you! This restaurant is so cute and cheery it makes me happy, or maybe I’m seeing it through daiquiri goggles, because their cocktails are on point. I think we ordered every vegetarian appetizer on the menu and it was all fantastic, but the tacos man, the tacos are what I dream about. Sauteed vegetables in a “tortilla”. Simple but perfect. They tempt you with a tablet full of beautiful photographs of their food that you can swipe through. High tech for Cuba!

Another place with fabulous veggie tacos is El Dandy in Old Havana. El Dandy also has the best sweet potato fries you’ve ever had.

What to Try: Empanadas and TACOS and fruit mojitos and EVERYTHING! Their breakfast also looks amazing!

Topoly

23rd and D, Vedado

Topoly

This is an Iranian restaurant with a large vegetarian section on the menu. The atmosphere here is very colorful, with a beautiful garden. They have charming belly dancers a few nights a week. It’s maybe not the best Middle Eastern food in Havana, that goes to Beirut’s falafel perfection (see my article on Ethnic Havana), but it’s good simple food that won approval of tourist and local alike, and there is just something feel good about this place.

What to Try: The sampler plate

Bonus

El Bambú – Jardin Botanico (Botanic Garden)

Props to you if you ever make it out of the tourist areas to Havana’s botanical garden, it’s kind of a trek. People really seem to like the garden, but I being a philistine, couldn’t fully appreciate it. I could however appreciate the vegan buffet in El Bambú, the garden’s outdoor buffet. Don’t know what I was eating, but I enjoyed it.

Casa Particular

Don’t forget about home cooked meals. The casa you’re staying at may be able to give you the best meal of your life, made to your specifications.

Additional Tips for Herbivore Travelers

  • Bring your own plant-based snacks. Nut butters, nuts, granola bars, crackers, chips, cookies, protein shakes, etc. Snack foods are not easy to find in the stores, and they are expensive.
  • To many Cubans, vegetarian still means chicken is ok, or a little bit of ham doesn’t count. Don’t take offense, they just don’t get it.
  • Cremas, despite their name, are usually not made with cream but pureed root vegetables. If you get it without the cheese and ham sprinkled on top, you’re good to go. Just ask first!
  • As I mentioned earlier, rice and beans can be vegan safe, but congri almost always has bits of pork.
  • Pesto is usually a good option in Italian restaurants, I’ve found it’s not normally made with cheese. 
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