Cigars. Rum. Perfectly-preserved vintage vehicles. Colorful, crumbling architecture only made more beautiful by its slow decay. Faded grandeur. These are some of the more romantic visions that come to mind when the average American thinks of Cuba—alongside the, um, less pretty ones involving Castro and communism, of course.
But on a three-week, mini-study abroad trip to the island in 2004, one of the myriad great things I discovered about Cuba was the food. And despite downing copious amounts of ron anejo and more mojitos than I care to remember, my memories of hot sauce-topped tostones washed down with Cristal (“La cerveza preferida!) inside a corner bar, a particularly mind-blowing cone of icy guava ice cream enjoyed in Havana’s Parque Central and of course, the famous (and amazingly delicious) rice and beans that are served with pretty much every meal, are some of the strongest.
Sound tasty? It was. Luckily, there are a few restaurants in the Philadelphia area that can almost sate my hankering for Cuban cuisine when it strikes. Here’s where to go for a taste of the island that’s so close, yet—sadly—so far for most of us. –Chelsea Karnash
The warm yellow façade and prime location just off Rittenhouse Square will draw you in, just don’t let the super-trendy décor and obnoxiously loud music force you out—the food in this Stephen Starr-ized version of Cuba is AH-mazing. One (or more!) of the ceviches is a must, and a well-crafted cocktail (like the Hemingway’s Daiquiri) is the perfect accompaniment. As for your entrée…well, I recommend you go with a group, because you will want to try everything. And you should.
This large restaurant located in Antique Row has stellar ropa vieja and paella—try the Valenciana with all the usual ingredients, a variety of meat and fish, and plantains—and an extensive mojito list, plus the perfect guac and plantain chips appetizer. And while the menu is actually a “mixto” of Cuban, Latin American and Caribbean cuisine, it’s all delicious. A great spot for a group or happy hour.
Go for the dancing, the drinks or the brunch. And for the toasted bread served with mango butter that comes with your food. And because, well, it’s just so pretty. While the food and the service can be iffy at this upscale Cuban eatery, the mojitos (try the Grilled Pineapple or the Classic), salsa music and atmosphere will take you far, far away.
PS – Chef Guillermo Pernot also occasionally hosts Cuban chefs who cook for Cuba Libre for a few days. He calls the events “Pop Up Paladars,” and the next one is coming up in June! Check the website for more info.
Don’t be scurred: Hop on the El and head to Kensington’s Pio Pio for a cheap and authentic taste of Cuba. Bypass the front counter with its typical American take-out options (cheesesteaks, burgers, fries) and make your way to the Cuban counter at the back. For under $10 (lunch specials are $5!), you’ll get a Styrofoam container full of tasty meat (try the pork), mofongo and a heaping portion of drool-worthy rice and beans. Yum.
This “little Havana in the heart of Collingswood” has been serving up Latin American and Cuban fare inside a historic (circa 1905) mansion since 2006. The Yuca Frita (yuca fries with fresh guacamole and mojo sauce) and the Habanero Maduro (a whole fried plantain topped with a variety of cheeses and either chicken, lechon or ropa vieja) are stand-out apps, and both the guac and the rice and beans are consistently delicious. While the entrees here can be spotty, the ropa vieja or seafood paella are both popular options that are consistently good. And two tips: First, this place is BYOB, so make sure you bring your own beer, wine or liquor if you want to drink. Secondly, make reservations or get there early in warm weather—you’ll definitely want to sit on the beautiful wrap-around porch, and it fills up quickly.
This University City Cuban coffee shop caters to students—there’s even a “quiet study room” in the back for the hardcore crew. But what really makes it special are the empanadas…and the classic Latin records that bedeck the walls. With large windows and potted plants, you’ll want to sit and relax while you sip on your La Colombe coffee and bite into a piping hot chorizo or beef empanada.
Helmed by the same people who own Mixto, Tierra Colombiana is a Colombian-Cuban restaurant located just off Roosevelt Boulevard that offers up the real deal—23 pages of it!—when it comes to Cuban cuisine. And with low(er) prices, a casual vibe and fantastic rice and beans, plantains and sangria—plus Salsa Nights on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays!—this welcoming spot will turn you into one of the regs fast.