ORLANDO, Fla. – Central Florida is an area filled with Hispanic flair, and with that flair comes great food. The region doesn't fall short when it comes to Cuban food.
Trying to find a great Cuban restaurant by Yelp’s standards could be a hit or miss and sometimes a little confusing.
Take the advice of some Cubans who can guide you to the island's favorites.
1. Old Cuban Cafe on East Colonial Drive near Alafaya Trail
Located in a strip mall, this restaurant feels very authentic. As soon as you walk in the door, the smell of the food and the décor in the restaurant let you know you’re in the right place. The menu has all the favorites and cooked to perfection. It's extensive and authentic – it has everything Mami and Abuela would serve up at home. There’s a fun, casual vibe to the restaurant that is very welcoming, and if you’re there when the live music is going on, it’s about as close to Havana as you can get here in Central Florida.
Price: $ - Fair price for good food
Yelp rating: 4/5 stars
Atmosphere: Culture you can feel
Angel's must-order dish: Bisctec empanizado / breaded steak.
Gaby's must-order dish: Vaca frita with yuca con mojo / fried and shredded skirt steak with cassava and garlic sauce.
2. Rey’s Cuban Cafe on 7800 S. U.S. Highway 17-92 #194 in Casselberry
Tucked away in a semi-used plaza, the parking around this cafe is usually packed. From across the lot you can spot a Cuban flag on the right and the American flag on the left in the windows, and you know you’re going to get a taste of the island. You automatically smell the home-cooked Cuban bread right as you walk in. The atmosphere reminiscent of playing dominoes on your grandfather’s back porch. It looks like your average cafe with Cuban nuisances: every table is decorated with nostalgic Cuban figurines. It’s a small, sit-down cafe, but the real treasure is its bakery. For a taste of real Cuban bread or pastries at a fair price, Rey’s Cafe is the way to go. It’s definitely a great lunch spot, whether you’re dining in or ordering to go.
Price: $ - Cheap for a quick bite to eat
Yelp rating: 4/5 stars
Atmosphere: Domino playing vibes
Gaby's favorite dish: Ropa vieja / shredded beef in sauce.
Angel's favorite dish: Vaca frita / fried shredded beef.
3. Zaza’s Cuban Diner on Curry Ford Road; Waterford Lakes Town Center
Zaza’s is more like a “diner” than a restaurant but is always bustling, giving it a lot of that Cuban personality. The Waterford Town Center location is extremely popular and I’ll admit I was hesitant about trying it – it just didn’t feel like it would have the right atmosphere. But you know what? It didn’t disappoint. The menu has all the favorites, everyone speaks Spanish and you can see the cooking going on right in front of you, just like at home. Did I mention it was bustling? The food was very good and worth going back to. It’s great to see a good Cuban restaurant battling against the big boys in the Town Center and doing well. Here’s a plus: It also serves a nice breakfast.
Price: $$ - Slightly more than your average Cuban cafe
Yelp rating: 4/5 stars
Atmosphere: Bustling family dinner
Angel's must-order dish: Vaca frita/ fried shredded steak.
Gaby's must-order dish: Chicken empanadas y cafecito / beef turnover with espresso.
4. Black Bean Deli, several Central Florida locations
This is perhaps one of the more well-known Cuban eateries to Central Floridians, and it’s obvious why. It has a more modern aesthetic, but the food is still quite traditional. The menu isn’t long, but it has all of the “must-haves” when it comes to Cuban cuisine. Sandwiches like pan con bistec share space on a single-paged menu with vegetarian empanadas. The weekly specials help you try something different, too, whether it’s ropa vieja or fried pork pieces. It’s not the most Cuban place someone can go to, but it’s definitely still Cuban friendly.
Price: $$ - Slightly more than your average Cuban Cafe
Yelp rating: 4/5 stars
Atmosphere: Cuban-American vibes
Gaby's must-order dish: Anything with the avocado dressing.
5. Cuban Sandwiches To Go on Lee Road in Orlando
This doesn’t look like much when you pass it by; maybe the red, white and blue building will make you wonder what's going on. But once you stop you will know why it's on the list. This is a true walk-up cafe and sandwich shop oozing with Cuban flavor and tradition that’s been here for years. From a café con leche to a pan con lechon, this little shop understands how important it is to get the basics right. The menu isn’t big, but what they do, they do right. A nice touch is the Spanish spoken behind the counter as orders are yelled out and cooked. Disclaimer: This spot is cash only, and closed Sundays.
Price: $ - Cheaper than your average meal
Yelp Rating: 4/5 stars
Atmosphere: Eating at your tia’s house (May want to bring a Spanish-speaking friend)
Angel and Gaby's must-order dish: Pan con lechon & colada.
Definitions to know before you dine
Central Florida's Cuban food scene has come a long way in the past 30 years.
To make your next visit to a Cuban restaurant a little easier, here are some definitions you should know:
Congri: Black beans and rice cooked together. The rice turns a light shade of black. Popular Caribbean way to make rice.
Empanizado: Usually breaded steak or chicken.
A la plancha: Pan-fried or cooked on the griddle, a popular way to make chicken or steak. Meat does not come with sauce and is not heavily seasoned.
Plantains: There are two ways to eat green plantains. Maduros, which are softer and are only fried only once. Maduro in Spanish means “ripe," so you’re eating ripe plantains. They usually taste sweeter and are not seasoned with anything.The second plantain dish is tostones, or green plantain slices fried twice and smashed, giving them a flatter look. Usually ,they’re eaten just with salt or dipped into a sauce.
Cortadito of Cortada
Cubans tend to add “-ito” at the end of words to insinuate a smaller amount, or just small. Cortadito is a Cuban coffee with a few tablespoons of milk; think a short cafe con leche (coffee with milk). It’s a great introduction to Cuban coffee because the straight stuff could seem strong at first.
A small but potent dose of Cuban coffee served in a tiny cup, sometimes accompanied with a saucer. This is typically what is shared in a Cuban household and tastes super sweet. Warning: It’s twice as strong as American coffee -- there’s a reason why so little is served.
This is what you order when you want to share coffee. It typically comes in a large, Styrofoam cup and stacked with at least four or more small plastic cups. You pour and pass around, taking a shot of espresso that’s boosted with sugar.
About the authors:
Angel Blazquez, News 6 executive producer
My parents fled Cuba in 1961. They first arrived in Miami, then moved to San Francisco where I was born in 1963.
For more than five decades, I have experienced Cuban food and Cuban traditions at home. It goes without saying, that when I step out to eat at a Cuban restaurant I am a fairly tough critic. I want it to feel like home – the atmosphere, the food, the personality, the music -- it all has to be there. For me, Cuban eateries are not too fancy and not too big.
They have to feel like a Cuban home: welcoming, bustling and with a kitchen that takes pride in the country’s rich heritage.
Gabriella Nuñez, News 6 producer
I’m a first-generation Cuban from the Hialeah/Miami area AKA Little Cuba. Both my parents treasure our Cuban heritage. I grew up speaking Spanish and English at home. My dad is very particular about sticking to Cuban cuisine, and coming from Miami I have the expectation that all of my Hispanic food should taste like my Abuela’s cooking.
As a millennial, I appreciate the atmosphere and look of a restaurant and if it will be a good place for everyone to enjoy, even picky eaters. For me, a Cuban restaurant needs to feel like you’re eating with family and like you’re already friends with everyone, and it should also feel like you’re getting your food straight from Mami’s kitchen.