Although I have always heard how wonderful Cuba is and how exciting and interesting Havana is, these rave reviews are often coupled with the following disclaimer: the food is not wonderful, exciting or interesting. In fact, it is quite poor. I figured if carnivores found the food to be lacking then it would be even worse for vegetarians.
Since EPC and I had decided to go to Havana for Christmas this year, I thought I had better do a bit of research on the city’s food and restaurants before we arrived. Armed with two guidebooks and the internet I set out to make a list of the vegetarian restaurants in Havana.
I came across two helpful internet sites. One was a 2008 posting by a vegan traveler to Cuba. He mentioned how his most memorable meal was shredded green cabbage and tomatoes.
The second useful site was a link to a newspaper article written by a vegetarian resident of Havana. This looked promising, but as he chronicled the decline of Havana’s few vegetarian restaurants, I felt a bit challenged, to say the least, about my ability to select some vegetarian restaurants prior to our arrival.
In fact on our first day in Havana, we arrived at one of the vegetarian restaurants listed in our guidebook only to find it closed for good.
Would we have to subsist on the sprig of mint gracing Cuba’s national drink?
Luckily for us the food at our hotel, The Hotel Saratoga, was quite good. The Anaconda Restaurant had numerous pasta dishes on the menu such as penne arrabiata, tagliatelle with sage and butter, pasta with pesto sauce and a lovely caprese salad. The room service/bar menu also featured a delicious grilled baguette sandwich with cheese, tomato and onion accompanied by a salad and fries (the actually accompaniments varied from what was listed to banana chips and salad, only salad, or steamed carrots and salad). This was my husband’s go-to meal whenever he was feeling hungry.
As you can tell from the photo, breakfast was one meal that you could really look forward to. All the food pictured is part of the Continental Breakfast available in the Lobby Bar at the Park Central Hotel. Best of all it only costs about $8.00 Canadian.
As for other restaurants, one that featured quite prominently in both guidebooks and on the Happy Cow website, was the Al Medina. This Mediterranean restaurant is located in Old Havana and if you have a guidebook you will have no problem finding it. For Havana this is a vegetarian’s paradise. Although the food was far from authentic, in fact the fatoosh salad was a cross between tabouli and bruschetta, it was quite satisfying. We ate here 3 times and were turned away once because the restaurant was full. Al Medina features a Vegetarian Mezza platter with rice, beans, fatoosh, falafel, hummus and pita and sautéed vegetables. I am not convinced that the rice was not cooked in chicken broth, but when in Rome… It also included a vegetarian kibbeh, which was squash wrapped in a cabbage leaf (you see what I mean about it not being authentic). However, if you suspend your belief about what constitutes a falafel, the food is quite good.
I also found an excellent pizza place. EPC and I both agreed that if we were served this pizza in Edmonton we would not be disappointed. The best pizza that we had in Havana was at Prado and Neptuno right across from the Park Central Hotel and on the corner of, you guessed it, Prado and Neptuno streets. We both ordered the Pizza Ecologico. It was topped with artichoke hearts, onions, green pepper and fresh tomato. They had a few other vegetarian pizza options, but I think the onion added lots of flavour and I did not want to risk my chance at a good meal by breaking tradition. They also had vegetarian pasta dishes, but neither of us tried these.
Both guidebooks mention an Italian restaurant in the old city called La Dominica, but EPC and I thought it was terrible. Although the restaurant was quite lovely to look at, the pizza was terribly salty and we did not even finish our meals. To add insult to injury I ordered the tiramisu for dessert and was dismayed to find it adorned with coloured sprinkles with an unidentified petroleum product subbing in for the mascapone cheese and whipped cream. In addition, my husband tried the margherita pizza at our hotel and thought it was awful too. By this point I was too scared to try the hotel’s tiramisu and figured I should wait until I got home.
I also had a great chop suey with steamed rice at Tien Tan in Havana’s Chinatown. Once again, I cannot be certain that the chop suey was not cooked in a chicken broth.
In addition, we went to La Imprenta in Old Havana (Mercaderes and Lamparilla). Upon first inspection it appeared to have numerous vegetarian options such as fried chickpeas and sautéed eggplant, but when asked the server informed me that both dishes were fried up with ham. Sigh, I settled on a spanish omelette which was quite good and only cost $1.25. Since I am just starting to add egg dishes to my diet, I have little to compare it too. In addition, there was a fantastic cheese plate featuring a fresh ricotta-type cheese, a mild cheese from Holland, and sharper cheese courtesy of Argentina. It was glorious.
We had heard about how delicious the ice cream was, but the stuff I tried on the corner of Obispo and Mercaderes was artificial in both its taste and colour. EPC and I stuck with the 500ml containers of Nestle Almond ice cream available all over the city.
In conclusion, I highly recommend the Cafe El Escorial located on the Plaza Vieja in Old Havana for their wide variety of speciality coffees and the Museo del Chocolate located just off the Plaza Vieja on Mercaderes for its thick hot chocolate and handmade chocolates. These two places certainly took the edge off finding good food in Havana.
EPC commented many times how the food was better than he expected and I would have to agree. It certainly did not detract from us having a wonderful holiday and thoroughly enjoying our experience in Havana.