I had read this often but found it hard to believe; how could Cuba have bland, just down-right, bad food when it sits in the Caribbean with neighbors that have explosive cuisine? Sadly, its true.
We had started to use the term ‘flavor neutral’ to describe everything from the fish to cheese; it was bizarre how bland these could taste. The only thing that saved us was made-to-order omelet at the hotel breakfast.
Helen’s birthday fell on a Friday night and we were at our flavor neutral breaking point. So instead of a fancy dinner at a hotel or tourist restaurant, we went in search of peso pizza. We had heard of this Cuban street food: pizza served out of small street side storefronts. So we wandered outside of the downtown core and through Chinatown, (yes, Havana has a Chinatown, who knew?). Walking down a side street we came upon a storefront with a funky pizza oven. Success!
So Cuba has two currencies. Russia tried this when their economy hit the fan in the 80’s. Its hard to get your head around it; a country with two currencies. Cuban pesos are kind of a subsidized currency for Cubans to buy the basics: food, clothing, local services; most Cubans are paid in these. Cuban Convertible pesos, or Convertibles, are the tourist currency and are used for luxury goods: restaurants, hotels. And it is difficult for tourists to obtain Cuban pesos.
Bottom line :1 Cuban Convertible Peso = 25 Cuban Pesos.
Anyway… the pizza was done in about five minutes: I asked, “how much?”….”ten pesos” but all I had was Convertibles. With drool foaming at the corner of my mouth, I gave over the ten convertibles not fully grasping I overpaid by 25 times! Whatever, I was fine with it.
I think you find a variation of pizza in every country in the world, but this pizza was definitely not New York or Chicago deep dish. It was kind of doughy, with a ketchup-like sauce and flavor-neutral cheese topping. That said, it was one of the best things we had all trip. We sat at a small bench on the sidewalk and ate as a group of boys played around us.
Helen’s brother, David had wanted to buy his sister her birthday dinner. I felt a little strange telling him that he bought his sister, not a three course meal at a fancy restaurant, but a peso street pizza that we overpaid for and ate on a bench curbside.
But how do you then explain that it was the best birthday dinner ever!
We moved on to a open-air bar/restaurant with tables and plastic chairs. They had modified two shipping containers; one was the bar, the other the restaurant. We ordered a few beers and another (slightly worse) pizza and took in the ambiance. The place was half-full; there was an animated group of youngsters with an undulating woman in a 70’s tube- top, and of course, everyone was watching Columbian MTV.
The small TV was located in a free-standing wall and next to the TV was a 50th anniversary of the Revolution retro poster of Raul Castro. I’m a sucker for these communist propaganda posters that are all over the place in Havana. Instead of advertising, billboards of Coke and Big Macs, there are propaganda billboards. I don’t know which is worse; they are all one in the same really.
Anyway, I couldn’t help myself: I asked the waiter if I could buy this poster; (which I realize is a kind of an ugly American thing to do! You know, come to Cuba and think you can buy anything you want?) He gave me a confused look and said,”I cannot sell you that poster of Raul, he is like my brother.”
Unfortunate for me, but the typical passionate Cuban answer I had come to expect.
We caught a cab back, this time a crappy Russian Lada from the 70’s. Looks like a cheap Fiat: No frills, basic utilitarian car, built like a t-34 tank and drove like one too.
This particular Lada was not the pride of Moscow. Homemade upholstery, zero suspension, and you need a pair of pliers to open the window. Where I come from, they would call this Lada a sh*tbox; however to this fine gentleman driving us home, it was an important financial asset. We bumped our way along the dark empty streets of Havana to our grand home for the evening, Hotel Nationale.