Becoming Cuenca

Cuenca Is Now a Foodie Town

Sep 16, 2023

The television writer and producer Philip Rosenthal said, “A good restaurant is like a vacation; it transports you, and it becomes a lot more than just about the food.”

Who doesn’t like eating out?

And that is especially true of expats in Cuenca. Joanna and I know expats who rarely use their kitchens. They go to restaurants every day of the week, and sometimes it is more than once a day.

Restaurants are a big part of life for many expats. It goes beyond the food as it is not unusual for expats to spend three hours together at a restaurant.

Unlike the United States with its high turnover rate and time limits for a table, restaurants in Cuenca allow you to spend as much time as you want at their place. Of course, we are respectful of the operating hours as we do not want to still be there after the restaurant has closed.

The restaurant scene has totally changed for the better.  It is more of an international city now with global and fusion cuisine.

On my initial visit to Cuenca a dozen years ago, it was a culinary desert when it came to good food and drinks.

Not to knock the iconic Inca Bar and Lounge, but it was about all there was in 2011. The old two-story establishment on a bluff overlooking the Tomebamba River had your usual affordable non-descript bar food. And its offering of cervezas was Club and Pilsener, which are Ecuadorian mass-produced beers (Better than Budweiser and Miller, in my opinion).

By the time my wife and I settled into our new hometown in January 2020, the selection of ethnic food was a tad better.

Good Chinese food was nowhere to be found. I blame part of that on being spoiled with great Chinese food at Tai Tung, in Seattle. But “Chifa” is Ecuador’s version what they think is Chinese food.

We did find a wonderful small and intimate Italian restaurant in El Centro that was run by two men from Roma. It was a very romantic place for authentic delicious Italian food. We went there for our first wedding anniversary in Cuenca.

But unfortunately, the two moved their restaurant to the far northern reaches of the city, away from most people. Though excellent, it is not worth the schlep up the mountain.

Like many places in the world, the Covid pandemic shut down many restaurants in Cuenca. Despite the pandemic, the traditional almuerzo (also known as menu del día) was still abundant. The prix fixe lunch that is served from around 12:30 p.m. till around 3 p.m. is very popular with the Cuencanos.

And there are some expats who pride themselves on getting that “cheap” (their word) meal. Having an almuerzo once or twice is fine, but it is not food you will want to go back to again and again. It is too bland to do that.

That is where 39-year-old Tony Pera comes into the picture (Yes, that is Tony with his customers in the photo above). Tony took the long road from Lucca, Italy (Tuscany) to Cuenca, Ecuador.

In July, he opened tPasta. The “t” stands for Tony. It has been busy every night. The first Friday night was completely booked as word got out quickly in the Cuencano community (Joanna and I were the only Gringos that night).

“I had this concept for 10 years: Real Italian pasta,” Pera told me. “I want it to be the best, so I use an Italian pasta making machine.”

Currently, there are about 25 different types of pasta, but Tony told me there may be more “tomorrow.” His goal is always to have something new on the menu.

Pasta is even one of the desserts at tPasta. This talented Italian chef told Joanna and me the unique and popular chocolate pasta dessert with nuts, caramel sauce, and a scoop of ice cream came in a dream. I can vouch how ‘dreamy’ that dessert is!

tPasta is not in El Centro nor in Gringolandia. It is in an up-and-coming neighborhood for restaurants: El Vergel.

Tony’s restaurant is on the southern end of Roberto Crespo Toral, in a quaint and quiet neighborhood. It reminds me of what you find in the northeast United States with all of its neighborhood Italian restaurants.

The young chef said he had a Tuscany concept for the restaurant. “I consider this place to be my house, not a restaurant,” Tony told me.

The restaurant is dedicated to “Nonna” (his grandmother). There is a photo of Tony and his grandmother adorning the wall at the entrance.

“I am a sentimental man, and this restaurant is for my grandmother. All the good values I learned were from my grandparents, especially I grew up in their house,” Tony told me. “I feel that my grandmother will come through the front door any day, and she will congratulate me.”

You will congratulate yourself by having a great meal and drinks at tPasta.

Looking for a very homey setting with a southeastern Asian flair? Look no further than Cooking With Rey, a Cambodian eating destination on the west side of El Centro.

Rey is from Kampong Thom, Cambodia, and her husband, Joe Abbod, is from Omaha, Nebraska. The couple moved to Cuenca about nine years ago. Just over a year ago, they began what is one of the best places to have dinner in Cuenca.

The cooking is all done upstairs in their home. It is a large kitchen that can handle as many as 22 people eating downstairs in the house at the same time.

There are now 19 delicious entrées to choose from. All have to be ordered before showing up for your meal.

Rey’s Sesame Chicken is my favorite. She describes it as, “Tender pieces of chicken fried in olive oil and sautéed in my special sesame seasoning. Crispy and delightful.”

Joanna loves Rey’s Cambodian Spring Wings. Basted in garlic, honey, and chilies, Joanna says the chicken wings are “the best” she has had since moving to Cuenca.

Lok Lak Beef Tenderloin (premium cuts of beef tenderloin cooked in a garlic red chili sauce) was my favorite until Rey added her great chicken entrée to the menu. It is one of her most popular items as well as Sticky & Sweet Hot Shrimp (medium sized shrimp sautéed with garlic, honey, chilies, and lemongrass).

When I asked Rey what her favorite dish is, she said, “I look to cook everything. I love to eat duck and Sticky & Sweet Hot Chicken. People ask me about my duck, and I tell them they should try it!”

Their decorative accessories and furnishings reflect Khmer (Cambodian) culture and traditions. A large, commissioned painting of a Cambodian princess hangs on one wall. Glass is prevalent in an intimate part of the downstairs dining area, providing lots of natural light.

Cooking With Rey is a special place to have dinner. It is why Joanna and I celebrated our wedding anniversary there with a dear friend (who would never pass up an opportunity to eat there).

As for our birthdays, we may have to rotate between Cooking With Rey and tPasta. Oh, such choices to be had…

One can easily say that La Guarida is a restaurant and a cultural center. Owned by our dear Cuencano friend, Andrés Zambrano, La Guarida is located on the very western end of El Centro. Without a doubt, it is the heartbeat of the neighborhood known as Barrio Convención Del 45.

Nat Wolff said, “Jazz is smooth and cool. Jazz is rage. Jazz flows like water. Jazz never seems to begin or end. Jazz isn’t methodical, but jazz isn’t messy either. Jazz is a conversation, a give and take. Jazz is the connection and communication between musicians. Jazz is abandon.”

Or jazz is a great part of a Saturday brunch.

Jazz is certainly great with good friends.

Late last year, Andrés started a once-a-month Saturday jazz brunch. Our good friends, Marshall and Nadine, have been going with us since the first breakfast performance.

Since then, our table has grown. A couple from Asheville, North Carolina joins us every month. Our neighbor, Carla, is now a regular at our table. And last month, Chuck, who hails from Baltimore, enjoys jazz and great food at our table.

You are probably familiar with Tripadvisor. It is the world’s largest travel guidance platform, with more than 890 million reviews and opinions of nearly 8 million businesses. In 2022, La Guarida became the best restaurant in Cuenca on TripAdvisor’s website.

“It is very significant to me that people care for what I am doing. I greatly appreciate the support,” Andrés told me. “I want to be known as the best place in Cuenca. It is tough as there are so many great places in the city.”

Maybe what separates La Guarida from the rest is the excellent food being paired with movies and live musical performances. “Our first film had no one show up. Now, we have presented over 300 films with dinner,” my good friend told me.

Growing up in New York City, Andrés became a lover of the arts. Maybe that is why he is such a huge supporter of the arts.

One way Andrés does that is by not taking a cut of the admission charge for the live performances. All the money collected goes straight to the musicians. And he always gives a speech with a tip jar to encourage people to add a little extra for the talented performers he brings in.

“Everyone benefits! It supports the artists,” he told me last year.

Quality of food is a huge factor when choosing a restaurant. Another big factor is the cost. Why pay Michelin star prices when comparable food can be had for a lot less money?

As you know, Numbeo is the world’s largest cost of living database. It is a very reliable resource for your planning to live in another country. I use Numbeo all of the time for my research.

Restaurants are one of the things used by Numbeo for cost-of-living comparisons. You will find Cuenca to be a very affordable city to dine out (Maybe that is why some of our friends are always eating at restaurants…).

Curious how your city compares?

Let’s look at “Meal for 2 People, Mid-range Restaurant, Three-course.” These figures should have your mouth watering for Cuenca:

 

Seattle, WA: $110.00

New York, NY: $100.00

Washington, DC: $100.00

Los Angeles, CA: $100.00

Boston, MA: $100.00

Raleigh, NC: $87.50

Chicago, IL: $80.00

Atlanta, GA: $77.50

Houston, TX: $75.00

Phoenix, AZ: $75.00

Philadelphia, PA: $75.00

Cuenca: $31.00

 

You get the idea. Cuenca is just 41 percent of the lowest priced city in the list above. In other words, a couple could go out two times in Cuenca and still pay less than one time out in Philadelphia. And they could go out almost four times for the same amount as Seattle.

There is a Jewish Proverb that says, “In a restaurant, choose a table near a waiter.”

Joanna and I would add, “Choose a table in Cuenca, Ecuador!”

It can’t be said enough that we are truly enjoying life in Cuenca. And eating out is just one reason we love this city (Full disclosure: We only eat out about twice a week as we love to cook).

Cuenca is such an artsy city, and that includes its restaurants. There is so much to take in and to appreciate life to the fullest. We truly feel lucky to be here.

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 amigo.

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.