“Do not come to Cuba for fine dining.” “Meals in Cuba are not a gastronomic delight.” “Many a mediocre meal in state-owned restaurants.”
So begin the “Food” sections in several best-selling guidebooks on Cuba. And for many flavorless years, they were right. Under socialist rationing, eating out on the Pearl of the Antilles was…well, what you’d expect from a restaurant industry dictated by central planning. Bland, bureaucratic, soulless.
But all that’s old news. Today, Cuba’s exploding private-restaurant sector is bursting with flavor, as relaxed government regulations and innovative chefs come together to serve up the island’s current gastronomic glasnost.
You can thank the paladares—literally, “palates.” In just five years, these privately owned eateries, usually run out of the owner’s house, have sprouted all over Havana and other cities, like plantains on the spiny trees that dot the country. Taking their nickname from a canteen in a popular Brazilian soap opera, they’ve initiated a revolution that fuses incipient, grass-roots capitalism with a culinary tradition stretching back to Columbus.
A revolution not of hombres armados, but of lechón asado, Cuba’s national dish.
Ideologically, Che Guevara would be opposed. Though his happy stomach would probably make him come around in the end…
Gastronomy on the Sly
For foodies clamoring to visit Cuba, 1993 was the banner year.
Why 1993? Because it was then that Fidel Castro signed a decree authorizing limited private enterprise on the island—including restaurants. Seemingly overnight, micro-entrepreneurs rose up to challenge the stodgy comedores (dining rooms) in the state-run hotels.
Meeting the demand for these entrepreneurial edibles, however, was difficult. In those bad old days, paladar owners found themselves enmeshed in ordinances: 12 chairs maximum in their dining rooms, no seafood or beef (the state tourism industry had a monopoly), no advertising. Owners had to buy ingredients at retail prices. Taxation was high, enforcement arbitrary.
Then, in 2011, Castro’s brother Raúl cut through some of the regulatory bloat. Now restaurants could seat 50. Licenses were easier to come by. Employment codes were relaxed. The number of paladares shot up, from 75 in Havana to some 2,000.
In 2014, when President Obama normalized relations with Cuba, the island seemed to hold its breath before an apertura (opening) of major proportions.
Today that opening is still pending—the U.S. trade embargo remains in place—but for paladar owners and their clients, all this simply makes dining into an adventure, an exercise in ingenuity.
Take the matter of ingredients. Since Cuba has no wholesale food industry, getting hold of the requisite rations can be a challenge. Some restaurateurs directly employ their own fishermen, who haul in their catch each morning. Others use networks of family and friends (“my aunt has a cousin, who knows a guy, who knows a guy”) to get fresh produce, or dairy products, which official policy earmarks for children under seven.
Even finding the paladares can be like navigating a labyrinth. Since advertising is outlawed, most establishments sport just a simple plaque outside the door.
“Everything here is done on the sly,” says restaurateur Lilliam Dominguez Palenzuela, shrugging her shoulders.
Cubanidad in the Kitchen
What the paladares purvey isn’t just fuel to keep the island’s bodies humming. Rather, it’s cubanidad—the mixed-race, black-and-white-and-indigenous heritage that Cuba’s nationalist leaders started hawking in the 1920s, and that today is abundantly on display in every pot and Sevillian serving dish.
The roots of cubanidad lie in the triple swirl of peoples that make up Cuba’s national stew. When the Spanish arrived on the island in 1492, they found an indigenous culture living off a diet of local staples: black beans, yams, cassava, maize. All of these ingredients made their way into the mishmash that is comida criolla, Cuba’s national cuisine of today. The mass importation of black slaves into Cuba’s sugar plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries supplied further spice to the pot: okra, plantains, taro toot. Add to all this the Spaniards’ own contributions—bean soups made of dried peas and garbanzos; spices like cumin, oregano, and cilantro—and you have a mix of ingredients corresponding to Cuba’s racial mestizaje.
This medley is what’s behind the delicacies served in every paladar. Dishes like lechón asado, a roasted leg of pork marinated in bitter oranges, garlic, and oregano that Cubans eat at Christmastime, or ajiaco, a meat-and-vegetable stew usually prepared with boiled beef and maize. There are also the tried-and-true classics: ropa vieja, shredded beef in spicy tomato sauce, or picadillo, ground beef with olives and raisins.
And yes, you can get delicious Cuban sandwiches here, layered with ham and roast pork and pickles and mustard. But no, they weren’t actually invented in Cuba. (Thank the refugees from the revolution in Miami.)
Where to Go
Paladares change names and addresses often, so one of the best ways to find good ones is simply to ask around. Here are some that have established themselves as go-to spots for tourists:
La Cocina de Lilliam
Calle 48, No. 1311, Miramar
President Carter ate here during a recent visit to Cuba; consequently, owner Lilliam Dominguez Palenzuela’s catch phrase is “Feel like a president for a night.” The spacious, leafy setting inside an old colonial mansion makes this a feast for all the senses. Criollo fusion food at its most elegant.
Callejón de Chorro, No. 60c, Havana Centro
Situated next to Havana’s cathedral, this now-classic diner serves up big portions of picadillo and ropa vieja. Leticia, the elderly owner, has no formal training, assuring customers that she prepares every dish just the way her mother did. When you taste them, you’ll believe her.
Calle 5, entre Paseo y Calle 2, Vedado
The menu at this excellent bistro is experimental, changing every day. Cross your fingers when you go, and hope for the conejo al vino (rabbit in wine). The mansion that houses it oozes atmosphere. Highly recommended.