Monday, February 27, 2012

Havana, Cuba (Dec. 2011)

In Havana, Cuba, I enjoyed some of the most satisfying vegetarian food I have ever had in the Caribbean.  Unlike the Puerto Rican recipe for habichuelas (pinto beans), the traditional Cuban black bean recipe does not include any ham or pork ingredients.  Nonetheless, a few restaurants in Cuba will add animal products for their own twist, so be sure to ask before ordering.  I never went hungry in Havana.  At every meal I enjoyed generous portions of black beans (a fantastic protein source), white rice, fried plantains, yuca with mojo sauce, and salad.  Although a bit redundant, it sure beat the alternative (going hungry).

I found the best variation of these staples, along with a some other creative options, in Central Havana at La Guardia, one of the most famous paladares (privately owned restaurants) in the city.

Black beans and rice with plantain and yuca
at La Guarida (the rum mojito is also meat-free!)

La Guarida's vegetable rolls are made with egg, roasted red pepper, spinach,
and a cream-based sauce.  This is a creative, non-traditional appetizer/side dish.

La Guarida is located on the third floor of a dilapidated building, and the converted apartment served as the set of the famous 1994 Cuban film "Strawberry and Chocolate."  But the inside of the restaurant is extremely quaint and clean, and the service is excellent.  Most importantly (in Cuba), the establishment has one of the most modern bathrooms in all of Havana.

In the neighborhood of Miramar, I recommend the state-owned restaurant El Aljibe.  Although it's known for its chicken, all of the side dishes (black beans, white rice, salad, and french fries) are 100% vegetarian, and they are served family-style, so the portions are abundant.  And, like most restaurants in Cuba, they are happy to substitute an egg omelet for the meat, if you desire extra protein.

Finally, for a light lunch or late-night snack in Old Havana, I recommend Cafe Lamparilla, a great people-watching spot just off San Ignacio Street, where I found a number of meat-free small plates.

At Cafe Lamparilla in Old Havana you can get satisfying small plates like stir-fried eggs
with pumpkin and cabbage, cheese, olives, salad, and bread with tomato and olive oil.