Despite the stereotype that veganism is a lifestyle only for wealthy Westerners, the cheapest and most accessible food in most of the world is vegan. Cuba is no exception.
Because Cuba has a recent history of food shortages, animal products made newly cheap and available thanks to US subsidization and food dumping are prized among most Cubans, so veganism will earn you a couple weird looks. However, although there is little to no understanding of “veganism” in Cuba, every restaurant I’ve been to has been able to accommodate me and leave me feeling full and satisfied, often for a fraction of what my omnivorous peers pay.
Keep in mind that this is by no means a complete guide to vegan food in Havana. I’ve only been here two months and spent the vast majority of my time in the area around Casa Lily where I stayed and at restaurants other people in my group knew about and enjoyed, so I’m sure there are many other options.
Here are some of the best places I’ve found to get food:
El Idillio (Havana)
Ave de los Presidentes & 15
This place is very touristy and expensive by Havana standards but their vegan options are cheap and plentiful if you know how to work the menu (and the location can’t be beat if you’re staying at Casa Lily). Like most places, the regular entrees will not have much for you, but you can piece together a delicious and satisfying meal from the sides (“guarniciones”). When I’m feeling spendy, I order the arroz morro (black beans + rice, sometimes made with lard at other places. Not here!), vianda frita (fried banana), and a limonada frappé, which comes in around $4.50. When I’m feeling cheap, I bring a bottle of my own water and have a bowl of frijoles negros dormidos (black bean soup) and split a bread basket with a friend. That comes in around $1.75.
13 between Ave de los Presidentes & H
Another very touristy and expensive place, but the vegan options are plentiful, even as far as entrees are concerned. They offer a delicious vegetable risotto (ask for it without cheese!), spaghetti with chunky, fresh marinara sauce, and a marinara pizza that comes without cheese. These entrees are still cheaper than the meat entrees, but if you’re feeling the sides, there are lots of mix and match options here too. The french fries are delicious, and the baked potatoes (mmm, rosemary!) paired with the sautéed vegetables or the sautéed mushrooms is a very satisfying dinner.
23 & D
This Iranian restaurant offers a large vegetarian platter that can be made vegan with a couple substitutions (I think it’s around $8), but I prefer the falafel naan wrap, which is only around $3. Just make sure you order it without the yogurt sauce! The falafel here is very different than it is in the US (I think they omit the parsley…) but it’s still very good. I’ve also discovered that, if you ask, they’ll make you a plate of just rice and lentils for very cheap.
La Chucheria Sport Bar (Havana)
Along the Malecón between C & D
My omni friends love it here because they make good milkshakes, but they also have some good vegan options! They have a spaghetti you can get without cheese for less than $3 and a personal pizza you can order with a variety of toppings (price varies depending on the toppings, but you can expect to pay $3-5). They also have a number of salads. My personal favorite, however, is the vegetarian sandwich without the mayo and the eggs. It comes on a perfectly textured baguette and with chips that remind me of sweet potato chips. All for only $3! I recommend you order the limonada frappe here, too, if you find yourself liking those.
Café Galleria (Havana)
L between 15 & 17
Order the vegetable sandwich without cheese for $2.60. If you ask, sometimes they have avocado and can add that to it for you. Their limonada frappe is also delicious, and you can order a pretty big dish of peanuts for 75 cents.
El Burrito Habanero (Havana)
23 between G & H
The service here is a little iffy, but they have a lot of good vegan options for very cheap. You can order bean or veggie tacos for 50 cents, or the paella without meat and eggs for about $2.50. My favorite cheap-o option was to order a side of black beans and a side of rice and combine the two for about 80 cents. It’s a lot of food and it’s delicious. And the avocado stuff they have in the middle of the table, while it may look sketch, is really delicious and totally safe in my experience.
Flavio 10 peso pizza (Havana)
11 & H
10 peso pizza (40 cent pizza) is a Cuban staple. Most places add the cheese before you order, but if you go to X, you can order a 40 cent personal pizza without cheese. The dude might give you a weird look and ask you a couple times if that’s really what you want, but it’s pretty good for 40 cents.
17 & K
If you could bring them through customs, Cuba would be known for its mangos and avocados instead of its rum and cigars. There’s also a booth here that sells little bags of peanuts and sometimes sells peanut butter (which comes in a plastic cup and looks sketch but was totally safe for me). Everything here is dirt cheap and prices are in moneda nacional, not CUCs. They will take CUCs, just don’t plan on breaking your 20 bill here. You’ll look like a tool.
El Romero (Las Terrazas)
THESE PEOPLE KNEW WHAT VEGAN MEANT. It’s worth pushing to get a day trip here. There’s zip lining, plenty of lakes and rivers to canoe and swim in, and this AMAZING vegetarian restaurant. When our group went, everyone could get a six course meal for $15 each, which is very steep by Cuban standards, but was worth it for the one meal.
El Bambú (Jardín Botanico Nacional)
If you take a trip to the botanic gardens, try to eat here. They set up a huge vegetarian buffet for us, and all but one of the dishes were vegan. It was about $7 a person, but it was a huge, satisfying meal, so it was worth it in my opinion.
General vegan hacks:
-Dux crackers are very cheap, very tasty, and very vegan. You can buy them at most gas stations or cheap street food stands. They come in a shiny blue wrapper.
-Pack some food and/or a cutting board. We didn’t have kitchen access and it’s nice to have snacks to munch on (or a way to cut that delicious agromercado mango) when eating out isn’t convenient.
-Before I left I read a lot of stuff online that made it sound like Cubans would be hostile to the idea of veganism, but that has not been my experience at all. Just be respectful. Most Cubans haven’t heard of veganism, so don’t use that word when ordering. Just ask if the dish you want contains the relevant animal products. If you have to, just say you can’t eat dairy (or whatever you’re worried about ending up in your food) to keep it as simple as possible.
-Always have a back-up order. Places run out of things all the time. If you’re really in a pinch, most places can serve you white rice with some seasonings or bread with oil and vinegar, even if it’s not on the menu.
-Your best bets are sides, arroz moro, spaghetti, veggie sandwiches, and pizza without cheese.
“Does this have X in it?” – “Tiene X?”
“lard” – “manteca de cerdo”
“dairy” – “lechería”
With four days left on the trip, I’m on track to spend about $650 during my time here. There are obviously other things people spend money on- souvenirs, water, alcohol, etc. – but food is by far the biggest expense for most people, and many of my friends have spent well over $1000 at this point.
Even if you’re not going to consider veganism for the animals, the environment, the one billion people our disgustingly inefficient food system has left malnourished and starving, or your own health, it makes financial sense to opt for the more plant-based option when ordering out- in Cuba, and at home.