One of the highlights of our experience here so far has been the daily opportunity to explore the restaurant scene in Havana. Chef Lorenzo and the rest of the staff at Casa Correra provide breakfast and dinner for us every day, but we’re on our own for lunch. Fortunately for us, Cuba’s capital city is a pretty great place to “have” to eat our way through.
Food probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when most people think about Cuba. It’s not uncommon to find write-ups of negative food experiences on travel blogs, and most people I spoke to about studying abroad in Cuba tried to prepare me for what they were sure was about to be a disappointing culinary experience.
For those who haven’t visited the island in the past few years, it’s not an entirely bogus critique. Until recently there were a limited number of privately-owned restaurants, and from what we’ve been told, menu variety was slim and lack of flavor meant the dishes weren’t super memorable. It’s a sharp contrast to the amount of attention Cuba’s drink specialties get. When I got here I had a list of places saved on my phone of where to get the best mojitos, sangrias and pina coladas in all of Havana.
With the 2011 economic reforms, the Cuban government relaxed its private business restrictions and allowed for the expansion of privately-owned restaurants, known locally as paladars.
A host of cafes and restaurants with creative themes and exciting menus have since popped up all around the island, giving Cubans and tourists alike not only more dining options for local dishes but the opportunity to experience a variety of cuisines from around the world.
Last month, Angelica suggested we try Maracuya Café for lunch. Located on the corner of A and 25, the restaurant takes up the bottom floor and outdoor garden space of a two-story house in Vedado. As maracuya is the Spanish word for passion fruit, the menu boasts an impressive (and affordable!) selection of entrees, drinks, and desserts that are covered, baked, infused or served with either pulp or the meat of the rich, juicy fruit. The seating area is (thankfully) completely shaded by thick green vines spotted with ripe passion fruit and the fruit’s flowers.
The owners and staff very proudly proclaim the positive effects consuming passion fruit can have on mental and physical health. The manager was excited to show us a few booklets the café had created that explains the history, growing practices and uses of the fruit.
A large poster on the veranda lists a few of its benefits:
To our surprise, the restaurant has only been up-and-running for about 3 months. It’s one of the most recent ventures of a French chef - who owns 370 others restaurants around the world and is currently working on opening another in Havana - and his Cuban wife. (The staff member who spoke with us declined to share to their names). They own a big farm near Vedado where they grow rows upon rows of guava and passion fruit.
We’ve been back at least four times since our initial visit and are still working our way around the menu. We’re big fans of the sweet crepe and waffle options, which can come adorned with honey, fruit salad, Nutella, maple syrup, passion fruit jam, or passion fruit ice cream (pictured). Their savory menu includes a variety of ham and chicken sandwiches, soups and salads, and main courses. Jasmine, one of the other students in the program, gave their ropa vieja (pictured) two thumbs up. One of their specialty menus includes four-cheese pasta, spinach crepe with vegetables and fish in white wine and estrogon. According to the manager, la brocheta con salsa maracuya and the carne con vegetales are the two most popular dishes. Their drink options are a hit, and it’s not uncommon for customers to stop in on a hot day (every day?) for a passion fruit daiquiri or a mojito (both pictured and delicious). They also serve up a range of fresh fruit juices and creamy smoothies and shakes.
Unfortunately, every time we’ve asked, they’ve been out of the passion fruit cheesecake, a dessert menu favorite. We’ve decided on calling ahead some night before we leave, confirming that they do, in fact, have passion fruit cheesecake left, and heading their after dinner at the residence. I’ve suggested that we wash it down with passion fruit wine, you know, for good measure.