City Food Guide: Cuenca, Ecuador
I wasn’t much of a food snob until I came to Ecuador…
I’m coming to the end of my trip. Four months ago, I didn’t think this day would ever arrive, but tomorrow is my last day in Cuenca, Ecuador. My last day in my second home, with the mountains right outside of my bedroom window. I have been putting off writing a city guide for quite some time now because I’ve been dreading the end of my trip. But I’ve spent the last two weeks revisiting some of my favorite places, finding a few new ones, and narrowing down my list of “you-must-do-these-things” to a couple dozen items…so here it is: a College Tourist’s guide to FOOD in Cuenca, Ecuador…let’s be real, the food, coffee and markets deserve their own post.
I just ate a traditional meal of rice and a fried egg with homemade pineapple juice for lunch. This size meal is actually usually more dinner-like, since lunch is the main meal here, but my host family is taking me out for a farewell dinner tonight so that will be today’s big meal. An almuerzo (lunch) usually includes a soup, main dish with rice, meat, and (if you’re lucky) some sort of vegetable. If you don’t have the opportunity to stay, or at least dine, with a local family, there are a few restaurants (and coffee shops) that will do the trick:
A vegetarian and vegan friendly restaurant located a few blocks away from Parque Calderón, the center of the city, is a regular out-to-lunch location for me. The lasagna, which at $5 is one of the most expensive meals on the menu, comes in a mini lasagna-pan and is cooked to creamy perfection. If you’re dining with a group, I recommend the $6 jar of juice (mora = blackberry = the best) to split among the party.
I have nicknamed this restaurant “Gringo Tree” for an obvious reason…if you want to find some gringos, some of whom speak English, go here. Located across the street from Nidia, a popular dance club, this is one of the more expensive restaurants in Cuenca. However, if you are down to drop $10 on a meal, the food is entirely worth it. And yes, I know that $10 is a decent price for a meal in the United States, but I’ve been living off of $3 almuerzos or free food from my host family.
Located somewhere that I can still only find because it’s around the corner from a laundromat called “Gringo’s Laundry,” La Cigale is definitely a go-to lunch, dinner, and happy hour destination. Two dollar happy hour drinks (I recommend the caipirinha), an average meal price of $5 plus the world’s best guacamole makes this restaurant/bar one of my favorite weekend destinations. To make it even better, there is also a hostel attached.
Not to be confused with the ever-so-popular CHIPOTLE, this Mexican-inspired food and otherwise very US-Sports-Bar restaurant/bar is another favorite weekend stop. Two-for-one happy hour drinks include a few typical concoctions, such as a Sex on the Beach, Gin and Tonic, and an Amaretto (my personal favorite, comes with an orange slice!). The cheese quesadilla is absolutely phenomenal and gigantic, though the price is a bit high for my taste.
The best vegetarian almuerzos around happen to be at the only “Chinese restaurant” in Cuenca. For $3.55, you can get rice, four servings of your choice of food (mix and match – all the same or four different ladle-sized portions of food), an egg roll, a bowl of soup and a drink. The egg roll is optional, but entirely worth the $0.80 you pay for it.
As far as pizza goes, this is definitely not the best. However, a slice and a cola for $1 makes it the most affordable good pizza around. Located near the corner of Gran Colombia and General Torres (my school!), this is the easiest go-to lunch. The cola is always a surprise – sometimes Pepsi, sometimes Sprite, and sometimes fizzy Manzanilla soda. Combo #1 will give you this deal.
Located right next to La Cigale (around the corner from Gringo’s Laundry) is the only place in the city that serves authentic, amazingly delicious Italian food. For someone who eats pasta practically every day, this hole-in-the-wall was a miracle find. Unfortunately it is not in my weekly price range, but you can’t go wrong ordering here. Tiramisu for dessert and a glass of wine with your meal are a must…and if you’re 18 or over, the wine part is completely legal in Ecuador. The owners of this place are super nice and are actually from Italy, so this is REAL Italian cuisine.
Another pizza place about a block down from Chicago Pizza, but I know this place for the ice cream. Though the price jumped from $1 to $1.25 for a cono simple (single scoop cone), the product is definitely worth the price. And the pizza isn’t bad either…though sometimes certain ingredients won’t be available so you’ll have to change your order after you’ve thought that pizza would have been cooking for a while (this is completely normal everywhere in Cuenca).
Yes, another ice cream and pizza joint. I’ve never had the pizza here, but the ice cream is pretty good, and for $1.20 for a cono simple, you save 5 cents by walking two blocks down from La Fornace. However, the scoop here is smaller and sometimes the ice cream has ice chips in it or is super melty. But maybe I’m just an ice cream snob.
San Sebas Cafe
Located next to El Museo de Arte Moderno and El Parque San Sebastian, this is the only place in the city that serves a decently-priced bagel with cream cheese that doesn’t taste like quesilla (homemade cheese without salt or any sort of preservatives). For about $4, you can get a bagel with cream cheese, a cup of fruit and a chocolate caliente (hot cocoa). One hundred percent worth it. The wifi here is actually pretty strong and consistent too, which is a plus.
Cacao y Canela
My favorite coffee shop, next to Govinda’s, serves a chocolate submarin, or warm milk with sticks of chocolate to melt in, for $2.50. While this is somewhat overpriced, it’s better than Starbucks. The wifi here is the strongest and most reliable, but the hours are not quite ideal. From about noon to 4pm, Cacao y Canela is closed for “lunch” even though they would totally make enough money to stay open just from my business if they were open during those hours.
The best hours, the worst wifi, and the most addicting chocolate mousse in the world can be found at Cafe Austria. There is only one table with access to a plug so charge your computer before you come if you plan to get a lot of work done, just in case. The omelet primavera is also one of the best $3.75 lunches/dinners you can get in the city that isn’t homemade or more expensive.
There are dozens of markets all over the city, but I have three favorites. I live about a block away from El Mercado 12 de Abril, a gigantic fruit and veggie market on the east side of the city. Part of the market is outdoors and part of it is indoors. If you can’t find what you’re looking for at one booth, just mosey down a couple rows and I can basically guarantee that whatever oddly-shaped fruit you’re looking for will be there somewhere. An indoor market between my school and my bus stop is El Mercado 10 de Agosto, which has a lot of dead animals hanging up in one section. If the smell of blood freaks you out, I don’t recommend this place. The fruit on the far side near Calle Larga is delicious and you can get really good deals there, but I sometimes have to hold my breath to walk past the door to the meat section from outside. The biggest market I have come across is El Mercado 9 de Octubre, which has three floors of fruit (main floor), veggies (main floor), uncooked meats (lower floor), and prepared food (top floor). The prices aren’t always the best here so if you’re going to buy fruit and veggies, I recommend checking out el mercado 12 de abril.
…And now my mouth is watering. I will most likely go back to the US and cry about the price of strawberries. For $1, I can get about a pound of strawberries here. They’re fresh, and there are no chemicals in any of the food. I wasn’t much of a food snob until I came to Ecuador…