This guest post was written by Daniel Egel-Weiss, who traveled to Cuba just after the US and Cuba announced they will be normalizing relations for the first time since the 1960s. Daniel shares his favorite dining experience and gives us a firsthand look into the island that has been off-limits to American tourists for more than 50 years.
Tucked away in a residential part of Havana, Cuba is an astounding restaurant that features – you guessed it – Cuban cuisine. Before your curiosity leads you to wonder about the food, you may be wondering how an American avoided the embargo and entered Cuba. Well, I was fortunate enough to visit the country on a cultural mission trip. My family and I visited the island nation in the Caribbean; a nation completely cut-off from the U.S. since 1961.
Havana (La Habana) is a metropolitan city with a population of nearly 2 million people. It features an amazing history, sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean, and a surprisingly large skyline, which serves as a constant reminder of Cuba’s pre-embargo prominence as a favorite destination for upper-class Americans looking to get away. Before the revolution (which led Fidel and Raul Castro to take over power with the help of the infamous revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara) there were countless celebrities who would travel to La Habana. Ernest Hemingway even had a house overlooking the entire city.
As my mother so eloquently stated, “Cuba is a time warp of equal amounts beauty and decay. The whole country needs a coat of paint and TLC. The people are so impoverished and on the ‘black market make’ but they are also charming and lovely and totally cut off from the affairs of the rest of the world.” The Cuban economy is unique insofar as it has a currency for tourists and a currency for citizens. The citizens’ currency is worth only 1/26 of the tourist currency. Having two economies running side-by-side leads to blatant, unfair disadvantages for the people who cannot afford even the most basic supplies (there is barely any toilet paper on the island, families are limited to one bar of soap per month, and grocery stores literally contain next to nothing). The local currency is called the Cuban Peso (“CUP”) and the tourist currency is the Cuban Convertible Peso (“CUC$”). $1 USD = CUC$ 1, but in reality it is $1 USD = CUC$ .90 because of an automatic 10% tax on American dollars. Being a tourist in Cuba leads one to appreciate the vastness of food and supplies in the United States.
Of all the restaurants I ate at in Cuba, I chose to write about Villa Hernandez because it seemed to embody so much of the richness and complexity of Cuban culture. It is located in a neighborhood full of rundown houses, which were quite large and must have been the “tops” before the revolution. In recent years, parts of the El Sevillano neighborhood around Cordova Park seem to be coming back to life with new restaurants, but it certainly has a long way to go.
When we entered Villa Hernandez we were greeted by a nice, English-speaking waiter and the sound of “As Time Goes By” on the piano. The pianist was outstanding. We were led down an ornate hallway toward an indoor/outdoor seating area with a bar in the back and a stage at the front. We would come to find out that when the restaurant closes, Villa Hernandez serves as the Hernandez family home.
Once you are seated, you are treated to the traditional Cuban welcome: a mojito. Without even ordering them, they came to our table, as water would in America.
As an appetizer, we ordered Papas Fritas (French Fries; CUC$ 2.00) and Trocillos de Langosta (Lobster Chunks; CUC$ 5.50). Any red-blooded American would love the fries, and the lobster chunks were as delicious as one could imagine. They were oily, but the garlic overtone complemented them perfectly. They were cooked to perfection.
Before we ordered our main course, an amazing set of tenors from the Havana School of Art came onto the stage. Move over Canadian Tenors, these kids were outstanding. It was overwhelming to try and eat while they belted out incredibly powerful voices in this small setting. That said, it spoke even more to the tremendous arts culture of Cuba.
During a slight break in the action, my party and I ordered our main courses. I ordered Filletelo Salteado (Peppered Steak; CUC$ 7.90), while the rest of my party ordered the Camarones Enchilados (Shrimp Creole; CUC$ 10.50) and Filete de Pescado en Salsa Verde (Fish Filet with Green Sauce; CUC$ 7.50). On the side, the table ordered the traditional Arroz Moro (Mixed White Rice with Black Beans; CUC$ 1.50) and Arroz Blanco (White Rice; CUC$ 1.00)
The Peppered Steak was tender and juicy. There was definitely garlic on there, which was a great complement to the light pepper taste of the meat. The jalapeño pepper chunks added a great flavor to the dish. With white rice, this dish was outstanding.
The Shrimp Creole was presented in an oval casserole dish. The portion was not huge, but it was certainly filling. It was spicy and hot and featured tomato chunks in addition to a tomato-based sauce. Again, putting rice in this dish added a ton of texture; putting rice in any Cuban dish is the way to go!
Finally, the Fish with Salsa Verde was outstanding. Perfectly cooked fish with green sauce on the side would be any health-conscious eater’s dream. The green sauce was comprised of green peppers and a thickening agent.
Then, there was dessert… Man, I am glad we got dessert. The Cheesecake (CUC$ 2.85) is “what’s up.” The cheesecake was rich and creamy, topped with almonds and drizzled with honey and caramel.
We also ordered Flan de Leche (Egg Custard; CUC$ 1.95). The dish was a delicious, perfectly-cooked flan topped with whipped cream and sprinkles.
Villa Hernandez is owned by Tomas Hernandez who, after living in the United States from 1980 to 1998, decided to move back to his native Cuba and open a restaurant.
The Bottom Line:
When the embargo is fully lifted (which I believe will happen rather quickly [I predict in 4-5 years]) and Americans begin traveling to Cuba, as they do to any other Caribbean nation, I know Villa Hernandez will be a top spot on their lists of places to visit in La Habana.
The food and service are fantastic. Ambiance gets lower marks because the band, although they were talented, were too loud for the space.
112 San Miguel Street (Calle San Miguel, No. 112)
VillVilla Hernandez Restaurant Review Havana Cuba Villa Hernandez Restaurant Review Havana Cuba