El Chanchullero’s walls are like a yearbook of rowdy nights in Cuba; pasted over with boozy-fun photos and signed with endearing message from loyal clients. These messages and pictures are testament to a paladar where locals and tourists mix like no place else in Havana.
Chanchullero is a place you can show up to for lunch, meet new acquaintances and gab over drinks all afternoon, only to find yourself asking for the menu again around dinner time, and then scrambling for last call from the kitchen at 10pm to try to get some more food down before because you know this is going to be a late night.
Since it opened almost 3 years ago this low pressure paladar cum pub with its young, highly efficient staff has earned an international reputation amongst globetrotters as serving up fresh food and well-made drinks at backpacker prices.
The menu is printed in a mix of Spanglish and Cuban street slang. The first section is simply labeled “the cheapest” and offers a selection of fish and chips (the chips being boniato, a close cousin of the sweet potato), mixed salad (seasonal, if you want avocados come to Cuba in the summertime), stir fried veggies with scrambled eggs (vegetarian drunk munchies), and sautéed garlic shrimp. Nothing on the list costs more than $3.50.
This sausage was so good, I had to eat a piece before taking a picture.
Main courses are sorted by protein. Chicken, pork, shrimp, fish, lamb, sausage, beef and lobster all get their own sections. Our two favorite picks are the pan seared shrimp with pineapple, honey and black pepper sauce and the namesake dish of the restaurant the surtido chanchullero, which serves up 4 types of sausage with oven fresh rolls topped with olive oil, garlic and tomato. Either one of those plates will leave you full and set you back $4.50.
By offering international quality food at prices accessible to the growing Cuban middle class Chanchullero has been able to create an atmosphere where there are just as many Cuban clients as there are tourists.
The pub vibe is well staged with the cleaver use of space. Everything is close to the bar, easy to rearrange, and the loft upstairs even offers comfy couch lounging for up to groups of up to 16. Did we mention they have ceiling fans? (Note: these are surprisingly uncommon in Cuba)
Between the mix of languages amongst the patrons and some classic Coldplay or Buena Fe piping through the Bose sound system Chanchullero offers mental escape from the overly hyped salsa music and mojito tourism most foreigners are exposed to.
Nevertheless, the revolutionary regalia hung about and old Cuban movie posters used as wallpaper quickly remind you that you are having a globalized experience in a country that has been isolated from much of the western world the last 55 years.
If these walls could talk... and pay your bar tab!
I asked one of the waiters why he thinks that Chanchullero has seen such success. He summed it up neatly, “Some people say we have a lucky star above us, but I think it is because we have fair prices, treat people well, and let the customer make this place their own”.
El Chanchullero (which roughly translates into “gossip shop”) is located a couple blocks east of the main steps of the Capitolio Building in Old Havana in the Plaza del Christo de Buen Viaje at 457 Teniente Ray between Bernata and El Christo. You can make a reservation by calling ahead at (7)872-8227 or 5276-0938 or visit their website at www.el-chanchullero.com. Be sure to bring your felt tip pen and camera to leave your memories to inspire others. Open from 1pm to when the party ends.
Photos and text by Graham Sowa.