Everyone I know who has been to Cuba raves about the quality of the seafood in Cuba, but what about vegan food? I was starting to get a little worried since a few people we know just got back from their vacation in Cuba and told me that they don’t know if I’ll be able to stay on my plant-based diet because vegetarian, let alone vegan, food is so scarce in Havana. But I am never one to listen to others and take their word for anything and instead did what I always do… a lot of research online. The thing about vegan cuisine is that you don’t know what exists until you actively search for them. And thanks to all the vegan bloggers out there, we headed off to Cuba with a list of veg-friendly restaurants. All of the restaurants below had English speaking servers and seemed to understand the concept of a vegan diet.
// popular and busy bar with damn good food //
Tell a local that you are looking for O’Reilly 304 for they will tell you that it’s overpriced and that they do not serve authentic Cuban food. I will agree that they do not serve authentic Cuban food, but if you are on a plant based diet, you won’t be able to eat authentic Cuban food anyway! And for a local Cuban, paying 7 dollars for 3 huge vegetable tacos, 3.50 for a generous amount of sauteed vegetables, 5 dollars for huge chunks of fried potatoes and 4 dollars for belly bursting amounts of simmered taro root might seem like rip off, but for a visitor from America? It is one of the most delicious and cheapest meals I have ever had. O’Reilly was so good that we went there twice during our trip. They also have double shot fruity mojitos for just 6 dollars. I mean, I watched the bartender pour 4 ounces of rum into my cousin’s passion fruit mojito. I would have fallen asleep then and there on the bar stool had I been the one to drink that.
// fine dining setting playing America’s 90’s hits //
HM 7 was recommended by our Air B&B host when I asked him where I can get some vegetarian food near by. It was just 2 blocks away, right across the street from the Melia Cohiba hotel, and the only other restaurant aside from O’Reilly 304 that we went to twice. I must have eaten Patatas Bravas at every restaurant I went to in Cuba and HM 7 made it the BEST. I might be biased because I absolutely LOVE potatoes and potatoes wedges are my favorite kind of “fries”. It was crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and perfected salted. You can ask for no aioli like I did, but they will tell you that it comes on the side and bring it anyway.
The sauteed veggies are carrots, celery, leeks and dark leafy green they have that day. I ordered on both occasions and the leafy green was different. It is simply seasoned with salt and pepper. The vegetarian Green Curry contains no milk or dairy, so it is already vegan. It’s topped with crispy sweet potatoes but it’s pretty spicy so be aware if you don’t like, or cannot handle, the heat. The salad is pretty much a raw vegan bowl. It contains lettuce, cucumbers, sweet peppers, tomatoes, olives and generous amounts of them.
// best rice and beans //
My meal at Habana 61 in Old City was $10.75 with my food, a fresh mango juice, and a Cafe Americano. Can you get a cheaper meal in Havana? Sure you can, but with my dietary needs and a restricted list of vegan-friendly restaurants Cuba, this ended up being the cheapest and my mind was blown! I mean, $1.50 for a huge plate of fried sweet potatoes? You can’t get that amount of sweet potato fries for $1.50 from the street vendors in South Korea. The fried taro root comes with a side of garlic infused honey, so if you are vegan, don’t dip it into the sauce. I ordered all my food from the side menu as I did in most of the restaurants we ate at in Cuba but my friends ordered off the entree menu and were given a side of rice and beans. I ate some of it and it was delicious! If you decide to check out Habana 61, be sure to order a side of rice and beans.
// the Obamas ate here //
I was told that Atelier was one of the few places that offered a variety of vegetarian dishes that can be veganized, and though they did have a lot of vegetarian fares, not many could be veganized. Many of the dishes had milk and cheese and pretty much the only dished where the cheese could be omitted were the tomato carpaccio, asparagus, and the side salad. However, their rice and beans are vegan and tasty! I do not know if they can be ordered on the side because I did not see it on their side menu, but luckily, the friends were willing to share theirs that came with their entrees with me so I had a quite delightful and filling dinner here. It never hurts to ask for some rice and beans on the side at restaurants when your options are limited. I will say that the tomato carpaccios were YUM! And remember, the malangas come with a side of honey!
Lamparilla Tapas y Cervezas
// fun atmosphere, fun servers //
I learned during a conversation with a local that Cubans love K-Drama and are quite infatuated with Korean actresses. So when we entered, the hostess asked, ‘Coreana?” and upon me saying, “Si”, she said brightly, “An-nyoung-ha-seh-yo! Bbali-oh-seh-yo!!” (hello, come in quickly). I bursted out laughing because Cuba was the last place I ever expected to have someone speak Korean to me. She was calling me “unni” (older “sister”) all night, and when I got hot and stood at the fan near the bar, our server set up a fan right next to our table and gave me a handheld fan when I sat back down saying, “aigoo, duh-wuh-la” (oh my, it’s hot). The girls were so sweet and funny, telling the boys that the girls get to order first and asking our permission if the boys can have the drinks they ordered. Out of all the restaurants, we went to, the servers here were the most helpful when helping me choose what to order. She was able to point out what was already vegan or could be made without butter, milk and cheese to be made vegan. She even asked the chef to omit the butter in my sauteed vegetables without me having to ask her to.
// fruits! fruits everywhere! //
Our host at the Air B&B made us a breakfast of coffee, milk, fresh juices, plate full o’ fruits, toast, eggs and ham with butter and cheese every morning. On the first day, I told her that I don’t need eggs, and she noticed that Simon and our friend D, didn’t touch the ham, milk and cheese so she didn’t put them out the second day. Being able to just go downstairs for a healthy and satisfying plant-based breakfast was a total life saver during our trip to Cuba because places around where we were, didn’t open early enough for us early risers and finding a vegan breakfast would have been a challenge! And whoever said that Cuba does not easily accommodate a plant based diet LIED! I was famished on our day outing to Santa Maria beach and I was mentally prepared to get full off of water when I noticed a little stand selling beer and food. We ask the man working if he had anything for vegetarians. He paused for a few seconds and said that he can make me a plate with rice, fruits, and vegetables. You can tell that he just worked with what he had in his kitchen; avocados, corn, beans, cabbage, sweet peppers, a variety of fruits and plantain chips, but hey! I gladly took whatever he gave me because we all know that he could have just said no and let me starve.
All in all, my vegan food experience in Cuba was better than expected. Are you going to have the best and the most innovative vegan eating experience in Cuba? No, you won’t. But you will eat a lot healthier while you are here (granted that you don’t survive on just the fried starches, rice, and beans) and you definitely won’t go hungry. In fact, I continued eating a lot of raw whole foods when I returned to the states because I got so used to eating raw veggies while I was in Cuba. I used to never eat sweet peppers raw but since I ate so much of it there, I learned to like them and now throw in a handful in my veggie bowl every day. Keeping a plant-based diet was a non-issue for me. You won’t find much seitan, tempeh or Gardein here so just know what to expect, which is a lot of fresh fruits and veggies!