Becoming Cuenca

Affordable and Good Food Shared Is Happiness Multiplied

Aug 26, 2022

“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.” ~Anthony Bourdain

I truly wished I had watched more Anthony Bourdain when he was alive. He is considered one of the most outspoken chefs in the culinary world due to his uncensored, brash, and charismatic attitude.

What I loved about Bourdain was him being a perpetually curious cook who wanted to know the traditions and history of the food he was eating. Bourdain always wanted to know more and try more international cuisines, especially ones that most Westerners had never heard of or thought about.

Besides being a talented chef, Bourdain may have been the world’s favorite travel host (My apologies to Rick Steves, who really did open a lot of doors for that genre). His favorite destinations were in Latin America and the Caribbean. Bourdain visited Chile, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Nicaragua.

Ecuador was no exception. In November 2009, for his Travel Channel program, “No Reservations,” Bourdain toured the Sierra and coast. In Guayaquil, Quito, and Montañita, the chef learned the recipes and secrets of some of Ecuador’s gastronomical best.

This was the only time he visited Ecuador during any of his television shows. Unfortunately, Bourdain never made it to Cuenca. That may have been because Cuenca was not much for good food a decade ago. When I visited Cuenca for the first time in 2011, your choices of restaurants were limited. Finding a meal that was above average in quality was difficult.

Frankly, getting a good meal was not an easy thing to have. You were limited in 2011 to Gringo hangouts like Inca Bar and Lounge that had good burgers and overlooked the Tomebamba River. Basically, Cuenca was a gastronomique desert.

By August 2022, TripAdvisor had 684 listings for restaurants in Cuenca. There are more than that as TripAdvisor is driven by peer reviews, which means the huge majority are from tourists. Many neighborhood restaurants are not listed. In my two-and-a half years in the city, I have asked TripAdvisor to add six or seven restaurants that were outside of El Centro (the historic district) and were not on their list.

Carnales Mexican Grill

One of them I had added was Carnales Mexican Grill, located on Av. González Suárez. This fantastic place for great and affordable tacos is known by the locals, but the tourists are ignorant of it. Carnales Mexican Grill says they offer the best of Sonoran cuisine. My wife, Joanna, and I think they are spot on. There are several choices of Sonoran style tacos, burritos, and quesadillas that are served in artisan flour tortillas. Everything starts from scratch every day. That includes the barbacoa which takes 18 hours to cook due to it being an extremely tough piece of meat.

Many times, Cuencanos are lined up outside to go into this small restaurant. Other Cuencanos know a good thing by going to the takeout window at the front of the restaurant. You will leave full and satisfied.

La Guarida

Ecuadorian Andrés Zambrano opened his highly popular restaurant on the western end of El Centro, in the neighborhood known as Barrio Convención Del 45. There is a Tranvía in front of the restaurant, making it easy to get to. Zambrano completely renovated an adobe building and has made it a most welcoming place to enjoy a meal.

The chef prepares his meals in an open kitchen for all to see. The famous and local ceramicist, Eduardo Segovia, has his artwork throughout the #1 rated restaurant in Cuenca. There is a small gallery to peruse and purchase. I can pretty much guarantee you will want to go home with one of Segovia’s pieces of art. It is stunning and unique.

Zambrano is a self-taught chef, whose food is cherished by the expats. Every Wednesday is “Movie Night,” with a wide variety of movies shown in English. Of course, dinner is part of the night. On other nights, there is live entertainment in the restaurant’s intimate setting.

Le Petit Jardin

Giovanni Cambizaca is a native of Cuenca, and he has a top-notch French restaurant on a hill overlooking the city. Getting to this “destination restaurant” on the very northwest side of Cuenca is not an easy venture, but it is well worth it.

Cambizaca has done a brilliant job of making this rustic home into a welcoming place to eat and enjoy life. He has created most of the artwork inside of his restaurant. Their Escargots à la Bourguignonne (Snails in Garlic-Herb Butter) are excellent. The Soupe à L’oignon (French onion soup) is some of the best Joanna and I have ever had. Our friends told us they have a friend who has had French onion soup everywhere in the world and is quite the snob. This friend says Cambizaca’s Soupe à L’oignon is the best he has ever had.


La Yunta Restaurante

Ecuadorian Sole Riquetti de Gould and English husband Jim moved to a historic adobe hacienda on the southwest side of the city in 2019. They added a skylight over the courtyard and have done a fantastic job with indoor landscaping of succulents and numerous flowering plants. It is a great place to relax, unwind, and enjoy good food.

Many of Sole’s meals are based on her family’s cooking. She has taken those family recipes and added some flair. With the influence of her husband, the fish and chips are definitely some of the best we have ever had.

On top of a great dining experience, you will have a lovely time in their tienda that is full of products from the province of Azuay. Think of it as an upscale Cracker Barrel. It will be exceedingly difficult to not buy something from their quality artwork to handcrafted items to dinnerware to home furnishings that are for sale throughout the restaurant. The items for sale are tastefully displayed to become part of the wonderful ambiance.

Quo Vadis

Cuenca’s best Italian and very romantic restaurant is very small.  This special restaurant run by Italians has a choice of about 10 entrées. Despite the limited number of choices, it is difficult to pick a favorite as they are all delicious. Quo Vadis is a “must” for those special occasions. And it is the place to go for Italian fare. With limited seating, it is best to make a reservation at this El Centro restaurant. And, if you have your perro, you may take the dog to this pet-friendly restaurant.

Lamian China

I had to add this one to TripAdvisor, too. Tan and his family moved from Shaanxi province in China. He opened up his restaurant, Lamian China, in September 2021 on Florencia Astudillo, just east of Estadio Alejandro Serrano (the fútbol stadium). It took little time for Lamian China to be rated #1 among Asian restaurants in Cuenca by Gringo Post readers.

Most North Americans are familiar with the most commonly found Chinese regional cuisines: Cantonese (southeastern China), Hunan (southern China), and Szechuan (southwestern China). Lamian China adds to that with the cuisines of northwestern and northeastern China. That includes Lamian noodles, which literally means “stretched by hand.” Fresh noodles are made every morning.

Spices are brought to Tan every month from China. His noodles are the top choice of his customers. Lamian Noodles with Shrimp is #1, followed by Beef and Mushrooms. Of course, his dumplings are one of the most sought-after dishes.

The cost of food in Cuenca is a selling point to many expats. Being on a fixed income can really make you watch your wallet. Overall, the cost of food in Cuenca is cheaper than in the United States. Numbeo is an excellent source for price comparison. Instead of using dollar figures, percentages will be used for common food items.

According to Numbeo, a loaf of white bread in Ecuador is just 58 percent of that same bread in the United States. Milk is a tad more expensive in Ecuador than the U.S. as American milk is subsidized by the federal government. Rice is used for a lot of Ecuadorian dishes, so it is about 34 percent less than what it costs in the United States.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are exceedingly popular with expats, and that includes me who did not eat a lot of fruits and vegetables prior to moving to Cuenca. This is good news as they are about 55 percent cheaper than the U.S. Bananas are 33 percent cheaper; oranges are 73 percent cheaper; lettuce is 57 percent cheaper; and onions are 54 percent cheaper. With so many varieties of potatoes available in Ecuador, they are about 41 percent of the cost of American spuds. Avocados are everywhere in Ecuador thus they are about a fourth of the cost as what one pays for it in the United States. Needless to say, expats are eating more avocados than they ever did back home.

For meat lovers, chicken is about 39 percent cheaper in Ecuador. Beef is harder to compare, partially due to the cuts of meat in Ecuador being different from what is found in the U.S. and Canada. Add that most beef in Ecuador is not aged like the United States. Nonetheless, beef is about 48 percent cheaper in Cuenca. Ground beef is very affordable, though it is hard to find any that has more than four percent fat.

Overall, Numbeo says grocery prices in the United States are 93 percent higher than in Ecuador. But there are certain items that cost a lot more at three degrees south. Peanut butter is a lot more expensive in Ecuador. Many expats crave it but cut back due to the high prices. That syrup for your pancakes will cost you more in Cuenca. Canned tomato paste and tomato sauce are more in Cuenca. Want a can of soup? That Campbell’s soup is about three times more in Cuenca than in the United States. And that price is for the soups you can find. There are some soups that can’t be found all the time in Cuenca.

Frankly, many canned foods are more expensive. That is because Ecuadorians cook from scratch. They are not buying convenience foods for their meals. And, of course, most familiar North American brands are imported.

Mercados are a traditional Ecuadorian food market. They are the heartbeat of the city. There are always people buying fruits, vegetables, and meats. Along with food, there are stalls offering a multitude of services and small items that you can carry home.

Because Ecuador is the most biodiverse country in the world, the variety of fruits and vegetables grown in this small country is unbelievable. Ecuador’s exports include apples, avocados, bananas (number-one exporter in the world), blueberries, grapes, lemons, mangoes, melons, mora (blackberries), papaya, peaches, pears, pineapple, plums, and strawberries. All of this leads to very affordable prices.

Of course, mercados have small restaurants to grab a bite to eat. Hornado (a slow roasted pork dish cooked in a marinade, with achiote, cumin, garlic, and cumin) is the food of choice. Think of it as like eastern North Carolina barbecue.

There are not a lot of American size grocery stores in Cuenca. None of them are as large or fancy as a Wegmans or a Harris Teeter. Unlike most American cities with several grocery stores, Supermaxi is pretty much it for a large grocery store in Cuenca.

Out of convenience and hard-to-find food items, many expats do all of their shopping at Supermaxi. It is a subsidiary of Corporación La Favorita which also operates Megamaxi, Akí, Gran Akí, and Súper Akí. There are two other large grocery chains, but they pretty much operate in the rest of the country.

Coral is similar to a Super Walmart. They are mainly located at Cuenca’s shopping centers. As expected, Coral has the lowest food prices in town. Of course, their fresh stuff is comparable to what you get at Walmart.

There are medium size grocery stores throughout the city. Joanna and I try to avoid crowds, so we do most of our grocery shopping at Comisariato Popular. Located on Ave. Remigio Crespo Toral, it is about the size of an A&P or a Red & White.

Besides not being crowded, most of the employees know who we are. When we skipped a week of shopping, the next time we went there, the security guard exclaimed to my wife, “I haven’t seen you in a while! Where have you been?”

Tiendas (small family-owned stores) are everywhere. Sometimes, they are across the street from each other. We support one of our neighborhood tiendas by buying some of our basics from there. It is a bit more than the mercados, but we are supporting someone in our neighborhood.

We end up going to several specialty stores for our gourmet food items and specialty needs. That is why we stop at places like Bocatti, Gramm, Ital Deli, Luvimar, and Plaza Europea.

Luvimar is a small gourmet foods store that is operated by Luis, in what was once the front yard of his house. This is typical in Cuenca as people operate their businesses from their homes. It keeps the costs down for them, and it makes it easy for everyone to shop there as it is in one’s neighborhood.

Cuenca has become a foodie town. Restaurant meals are definitely less than what you will shell out in the United States. This is an affordable city to have homecooked meals with very fresh ingredients.

Why not try it? Bourdain said, “I’m a big believer in winging it. I’m a big believer that you’re never going to find a perfect city travel experience or the perfect meal without a constant willingness to experience a bad one. Letting the happy accident happen is what a lot of vacation itineraries miss, I think, and I’m always trying to push people to allow those things to happen rather than stick to some rigid itinerary.”

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigos.

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.