We fell in love with the beautiful, colonial town of Cuenca. It is smaller and less busy than Quito, but still offers many food and drink options. It is very much an international town with many ex-pats taking up residence here which has created remarkable cuisine options.
Top Vegan/Vegetarian Choice: Cafe Libre
Cafe Libre is a funky vegan joint that caters primarily to hippie foreigners., but don’t let that stop you. The music is odd and ranges from soft Spanish music to mid 2000s American punk rock. At 8pm we could barely find a seat and opted for a table that was in the hallway entrance. It was a wait to get our food but the restaurant was packed and we could see the chefs in the back perfecting each plate with a fantastic presentation. It was well worth the wait. The top choices were the locrito and the tex-mex burger. Locro is a classic potato cheese soup, but this version was vegan with beans and all the classic toppings including popped corn kernels and avocado. The tex-mex burger was an incredible bean burger with guacamole and all the fixins. It came with the best fries we’ve had in Ecuador. We could barely walk home after we overindulged. This was one of my favorite meals that I have had in Ecuador – it’s not just for vegans! It is difficult to impossible to get a full days serving of vegetables around here, so if you’re missing your greens stop by. We had 3 mains and 2 large beers for $30.. yes, we ordered too much but I would do it all over again.
Top Pasta Choice: A Pedir de Boca
A Pedir de Boca was the first restaurant we made it to after arriving in Cuenca. We ordered the Thai style pastas, Sergei opted for shrimp with a spicy sauce and I had chicken with a soy and honey sauce. The portions are huge and I definitely recommend splitting one. We read that in the reviews, but we both eat a lot so we thought we better each get our own (so American) but in hindsight one would have been plenty. We ended up with some leftovers. The pastas were amazing with lots of nice vegetables and I would definitely order it again. But I think my favorite part of the restaurant was our server. He was a tall, quirky guy who was studying for his English exams and therefore wanted to try and speak as much English with us as possible. He wanted us to order in English, which we did, and our food orders came out correct, but not our beer order. But on the bright side we received exceptional local artisanal beer, the Santa Chulla Chela tripel. At 9% it was enough for us to walk back home and fall instantly asleep. It was probably better than what we wanted to order so no harm, no foul.
Top Empanadas: Empanadas La Fiera
This place absolutely stole my heart. It is a tiny joint run single handedly by a grandma named Miriam. I always trust a sweet grandma to cook good food, and this was no exception. The empanadas are bright – yellow, orange, beet red, and spinach green. She spent 14 months perfecting the dough in her kitchen, her husband told her to give it up, but she finally nailed it. She uses vegetables to color the dough, no artificial flavors or coloring. She has a classic ground beef, steak, chicken breast with potatoes, vegetable, and pizza. They were truly the best empanadas I’ve ever had. She makes them herself every morning as well as a basil mayonnaise and a spicy pepper sauce for dipping. At $1.50 each they cannot be beat. This is also one of the few places you’ll find baked empanadas, most places serve them up fried. Unfortunately, she told us that Ecuadoreans here are very traditional so most won’t try her empanadas – they are scared of the colors. She says they opt for her traditional ground beef with white dough every time. Her clientele is 80% foreigner, 20% Ecuadorean. She has a son in Charlotte, NC and is hoping to open shop in NC next year. Fingers crossed! She can speak a few sentences in English, but she is an absolute delight to speak Spanish with as she is a chatty Cathy but speaks slowly for us gringos. Go for the empanadas and stay for some grandma time.
Top Coffee Shop: Cafe Nucallacta
Because there are so many incredible places to explore we don’t normally go back to the same spot, but with Cafe Nucallacta we just couldn’t help ourselves. Nucallacta roasts their own coffee beans. They are just hours from all of the coffee farms in Ecuador. They brew mountain grown beans in medium and dark roasts, but also have specialized beans from microlots that are available seasonally. Needless to say, we have had our best coffee at this cafe. We’ve been making due with instant coffees at home in the mornings, so an afternoon cup of perfect coffee has become a decadent treat. The first time we were here the owner was negotiating with American wholesale buyers, it was pretty interesting to eavesdrop while they tasted and discussed the different coffees. Aside from amazing coffee, they also serve full meals. The first time around we opted for pork and beer-battered fish tacos. Our second time we went for the gold: dessert. Their carrot cake is to die for and the Andean blueberry pie is just as good if you want something less sweet. Its popular among foreigners and locals, the WIFI is fast, and there is outdoor seating through the back room.
Top Cocktail: El Mercado
We stopped at El Mercado for an after-dinner drink. It has a beautiful restaurant and is one of the most highly rated restaurants in Cuenca. I cannot speak for the food, but the cocktail I had was exceptional, both in flavor and in presentation. I ordered a sugar-alcohol based drink with basil, lemon, bitters and soda. It came in a frozen metal pineapple which was odd but also charming. I was instructed to drink a little of the cocktail and then eat the sweet pickled citrus. It was a refreshing delight. The service was exceptional and the ambiance reminded us of Alice in Wonderland mixed with a rustic chic vibe. The tables were surrounded by overflowing planter boxes of ferns and flowers and had a view of the river. Below on the first floor was seating for dinner guests and it had a very romantic vibe. When we left at a quarter to 10 it was packed.