Eating dinner in Communist Cuba

Conde de Villanueva was a lovely restaurant in the beautiful Hotel del Habano... even if they were out of several dishes.
Conde de Villanueva was a lovely restaurant in the beautiful Hotel del Habano… even if they were out of several dishes.

Sometimes, travel is meant to be an adventure. One day in 2006, for example, I went back to my apartment in Mexico City and told my wife we were moving to Abuja, Nigeria. Good times! In December 2016, I went on a bar crawl in Jakarta that involved a place which had been bombed by terrorists. It was bombed because, well, it was a bar. I got lost once in Japan, and I spent 11 days in Nicaragua once before I had learned enough Spanish. Anyway, I considered myself a seasoned traveler. That caused me to become arrogant, and being arrogant meant I quit listening. When I went to Cuba in July 2018, that meant that I didn’t listen to what restaurants were telling me about their menu. One of those places was the Conde de Villanueva in the Hotel del Habano.

On my recent cruise to Cuba on the Norwegian Sky, I did the right thing. I booked OFAC-approved tours directly with Norwegian to document that I complied with Treasury department regulations. I loved the Cigars, Rum, and Cuban Art tour, and I will review that separately. Still, I had a little bit of spare time to walk around on my own. Doing this made me hungry, so I started looking for a place to eat. Several restaurants said things like, “We have chicken, we have seafood.” I wondered why people were telling me what they had as I was reading the menu, but whatever. I eventually settled on the Conde de Villanueva. They had ropa de vieja (shredded beef) on the menu, and I really wanted to try that.

I was the only customer in the restaurant. I was quickly acknowledged, seated, and handed a menu.

The menu in the Conde de Villanueva on the Hotel del Habano.


My place setting at the Conde de Villenueva.

The first thing I had to do was order a drink. I had been walking for a while, and I worked up a powerful thirst. The two national drinks of Cuba are the (lime) daiquiri and the mojito. I do not remember which I ordered first, but I had one of each. They were delicious. Unlike daiquiris in the U.S., the Cuban variant is not too sweet. The lime helps balance that, and they simply don’t add too much sugar. The mojito is more familiar in the U.S., but it was also a somewhat less sweet drink. It is also incredibly refreshing, and it is a great choice when you have been walking around in the tropics.

The food menu had been posted outside, and there were several things I wanted to try. I quickly ordered the ropa de vieja, and the waitress apologized that they did not have that. Indeed, they were altogether out of beef. When I asked what they did have, she said they had loma de cerdo (pork chop), shrimp, and mentioned one or two other items. Fair enough. I ordered the shrimps al ajillo (shrimp in garlic butter) to start. It was delicious, although it was a little weird. The vein on the back of the shrimp hadn’t been cleaned. Still, it was served in a sizzling pot of butter that contained a ton of garlic. I figured it was safe to eat, so I did. That was the right call. It is four days later, and I am just fine. More to the point, it was delicious.

Shrimps al ajillo at Conde de Villanueva, Havana, Cuba. The pot of butter boiled for a long time after they brought it to the table.

The lomo de cerdo was a delicious pork chop. It was served over a bed of cabbage, carrots, and other vegetables. It was delicious. After eating, I paid my check, went to the street, and turned right.

Lomo de cerdo at Conde de Villanueva. The pork chops were served on top of a bed of vegetables.

I walked past another restaurant that had a big Trip Advisor sign, and I must have looked at the menu. The proprietor made a point of telling me that they had everything on the menu. That’s when it hit me: The other restaurant owners didn’t want to tell me they were out of stuff, so they were telling me what they did have. My Spanish wasn’t at fault here, but my my listening was. Cuba is still a Communist country, and communism has never been very good at, you know, commerce. Restaurants had spent serious money on a lovely setting for tourists, very few of whom actually showed up for dinner. A combination of that and supply chain problems meant that they didn’t have stuff.

It was an excellent meal, and I am glad I went. The restaurant was also quite helpful in my desire to find a Cuban cigar to smoke. However, I learned two lessons. The first is that I need to listen better. When someone is telling me something, I should listen to understand. Here, I simply listened to… I’m not sure. Second, Cuba is a beautiful island with beautiful people. It is also still a fully Communist country. For us children of the Cold War, it was weird to see that was still a thing. I am immensely grateful that I added this adventure to my inventory.

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