Barrio China: Havana’s Chinatown


Havana is a city almost 500 years old. There is a lot of history on every street. Every “barrio” or neighborhood has stories to tell, and secrets to be discovered by the curious visitor.

One of the most unique and interesting is the Barrio Chino, Chinatown. Located in a triangular area, bound by the streets of Zanja, Galiano, and Dragones, it is now only a fraction of what it was 50 years ago, in its heyday. However, the government selected this barrio to be kind of a showcase, or pilot program regarding the return of small private businesses, mostly cafeterias and restaurants, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the Cuban economy tanked.

Under the sponsorship of the Grupo Promotor del Barrio Chino (Chinatown Promotion Group), new businesses have opened, and old ones have changed their style to a better service oriented economy. The finest of Cuban-Chinese cuisine can be found at the many restaurants that thrive in Barrio Chino.

The first restaurants established in the Barrio Chino, back in the 19th century, catering to a clientele not exclusively Chinese, were inspired by Chinese-American restaurants of California. However, the natural process of adaptation to the locally available ingredients, and to the tastes of the local population, have produced the unique combination known as Cuban-Chinese cuisine. The basic foundation is the Southern Chinese, or Cantonese cuisine. The hot seasonings of Szechuan or Hunan cuisine are not popular in Cuba. Cuban cuisine is more about blending spices, so no individual seasoning overwhelms the palate, hence Cantonese became the favorite. The most popular and most representative dish is the fried rice. Each restaurant has its own variation, mostly called the “house special fried rice”. Portions are very generous, but it is a must try dish. It’s great to share with friends.

Another interesting thing to do when visiting Barrio Chino, is taking a ride on a tricycle taxi. Barrio Chino is just a few blocks from the Capitol Building, Fraternity Park, Central Park, Hotel Inglaterra, Floridita Bar and Restaurant, El Prado Promenade, and many other places in this area of the city. Tricycle taxis were first introduced in the early 1990s, when public transportation almost collapsed, and bicycles were distributed massively so people could keep commuting to work. Today, they are a very eco-friendly and leisure way to get around the oldest part of the city. One of the areas where most tricycle taxis concentrate is Barrio Chino. You’ll find tricycle taxi drivers will pedal hard to take you wherever you want to go, and many will also inform you about the sights and the stories lurking around every corner.