Cuba? Why not?
Note: This series first appeared in The Columbia Star in 2001 soon after Linda and I returned from an illegal trip to Cuba. In celebration of President Obama’s opening of Cuba to Americans, I am republishing the articles.
Cuba is not a gourmet’s delight. There are no world class restaurants, and there are no McDonald’s…yet. Both are in the making, though.
Since the 1959 revolution, Cuban cuisine has been prepared in the socialist kitchen, meaning the government has decided what the people need and have rationed it out to them. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban table improved slightly with food from South America and Europe, but families still depend on the ration book for basic staples such as meat, bread, cooking oil, milk, and soap.
Every Cuban government policy has its good and bad consequences. For example, all children under age six are guaranteed a certain amount of milk a week. That’s good, all children need milk during their growing years. But in order to carry this out, the government decided to take ownership of all cows to keep them from the slaughterhouse. So, all farmers with cows must produce milk and provide it to the government so it can be distributed to all children. The result is an almost complete lack of beef on the Cuban menu. The time Linda and I ordered a hamburger steak in a government restaurant, it turned out to be poorly prepared horse meat.
Things are improving, though. Now that tourism is the major dollar-earning industry in Cuba, the government has had to loosen up. When the first tourists arrived in the early 1990s, the only places they could eat were government (peso) restaurants. The menu was thin, the service was awful, and often the food ran out, all because it was run by government bureaucrats.
Innovations came in the form of cafeterias, pizzerias, and a fast food chain called El Rápido that serves pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, and beer. There were always long lines of Cubans at these popular government restaurants.
In response to the overwhelming tourist demand, the government opened up to restaurant joint ventures. Foreign enterprises would join with the Cuban government to establish an international quality restaurant. Most of these were in joint venture hotels and were quasi-Italian, French, or Spanish. Many were buffet-style.
Linda and I ate in an Italian restaurant, Restaurante La Dominica in Old Havana, which had a complete menu from spaghetti to lobster Florentine and an extensive wine list. Both the food and the service were excellent.
As the number of tourists continued to increase, the restaurants couldn’t keep up, so the government legalized a practice in 1995 that was naturally occurring — citizens inviting tourists into their homes to eat. These private homebased dining rooms, called paladares, flourished, so much so that the government clamped down with restrictions. The paladar could have only 12 seats; only family members could work (no paid employees); and no beef, lobster, or shrimp could be served. Recently severe business license fees have been imposed along with fees on signs advertising the paladar. Remember: advertising is a no no in communist Cuba.
The result is that the best restaurants in Cuba are tiny dining rooms tucked away in second floor residencies, real mom and pop homecooking places. Linda and I ate in two paladares. Both were excellent and moderately priced — two full meals with beer for about $25. In one I had the illegal lobster but had to promise not to tell.
It must be pointed out that these tourist restaurants take dollars only, no pesos, and are officially forbidden to Cubans. However, as more Cubans obtain dollars and more restaurants are opened, this barrier will certainly fall. Linda and I met a few Cubans in the restaurants who had escorted tourists and were eating with them.
All in all, the food in Cuba is not exciting. It is adequate and not life–threatening. Beer, coffee, tea, and soft drinks are plentiful. And in any restaurant or bar serving tourists, a three–man band is always playing Guantanomera, Cuba’s national folk song.
What is exciting is Cuban ice cream, helado. On almost every corner is an ice cream stand. The most popular place in Havana is the Coppelia ice cream store. The line wraps around the entire city block beginning at 8 a.m.
Linda and I enjoyed the ice cream. I preferred mine with caramel cream and café cubano (strong black coffee). She chose chocolate with café con leche (coffee with cream).
Continued next week