Despite what Anthony Bourdain might have you believe, Cuba, and specifically, Havana, is not a foodie’s paradise. This is not to say Cuban food is inherently flawed or unvaried (quite the opposite, actually) or that eating well in the island capital is impossible. It is rather that in my recent experience, finding good food in Cuba can be a bit of a treasure hunt. You have clues, maybe a map, and some assurance that it does exist, but, unlike in what I would deem true foodie destinations (Bangkok, Madrid, Hong Kong) in which you’re sometimes literally tripping over delicious offerings, in Havana, you have to give chase. And while I also know first-hand the satisfaction of tracking down that family-run paladar that’s rumored to serve the best ropa vieja in town but keeps unpredictable hours and has no sign, I also know that fierce hunger sometimes overwhelms the will to hunt. (Probably why I wouldn’t have lasted long as a cavewoman.)
During those times in Havana, and especially during the day, I took to the streets, where I was all but guaranteed to fill my belly with fresh, distinctly Cuban and dare-I-say-Havanan food for very little money. At farmers stands, I got my fix of fresh bananas, cucumbers, carrots, pineapple (sliced for your convenience), and perhaps the largest papayas known to man. (Seriously, they could double as cruise missiles and probably will do so should we go through The Great Fruit War.)
I also tried and fairly enjoyed the country’s second-most-famous sandwich, pan con bistec, a crusty palm-sized roll stuffed with a fried pork cutlet, most often available at small street-side stalls at lunchtime. Tourists and locals on lunch break paired these sammies with fresh-squeezed guava or tamarind juice or guarapo, cloudy, saccharine sugarcane juice. By the way, the Cuban sandwich is an option on virtually every government-run restaurant, though to be honest I have had far better versions in Miami.
Almost every country I have ever visited has their own riff on fried dough and Cuba is no exception. Their addictive chiviricos are broad ribbons of pastry that resemble over-sized wonton strips that are dunked in hot oil until crisp, then dusted with granulated sugar. These, as well as churros, are sold from carts lining parks and most major tourist attractions.
Popcorn and hot dogs aren’t the first things that come to mind when conjuring Cuban cuisine, but damn (probably due to their extreme cheapness) are they popular in Havana. The former is vended in large paper cones for easy strolling and noshing and latter come dressed with lots of yellow mustard and ketchup (Chicagoans, avert your eyes!).
Finally, while java is not my thang, I knew I would be a fool if I didn’t at least try a cup of ubiquitous Cuban coffee to round out my prandial perambulations. The small cup of earthy brew tasted was equal parts caffeine and sugar, and in other words, perfect for a coffee neophyte just looking for a lift before the next round of sight-seeing.