06 Apr What and Where to Eat in Cuenca, Ecuador
Ecuador may not be considered a gastronomic hot spot, but we were pleasantly surprised to find the food to be not only affordable but also really good! During our 6 weeks living the heart of Cuenca, we enjoyed eating out for almuerzos (a set lunch of the day, usually about $2.50 for fresh juice, soup, entree, and sometimes a small dessert). We then made most of our own breakfasts and dinners with fresh produce from the markets.
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This is an overview of our top recommendations for what and where to eat in Cuenca. There are certainly more high-end options available out there, which you can find through Trip Advisor – most of the restaurants we list here will be more budget-traveler-friendly.
Map of Our Favorite Places in Cuenca
We introduced the map above in our What to See and Do in Cuenca blog post. Just click on the fork and knife icons for restaurants, coffee mug icons for cafes, grocery cart icons represent supermarkets, the hamburger bun represents a bakery, and “M” building icons are the large produce markets.
Local Specialties to Eat in Cuenca
- Almuerzos – This refers to a set lunch menu of the day, often three courses for a very reasonable price. Some restaurants also have the same concept in the evening, called meriendas.
- Locro de papa – a traditional soup with potatoes and cheese and slices of avocado
- Tropical fruit – mangos, papaya, pinapple, banana, plantains, avocado, guanabana, maracuya (passion fruit)
- Regional fruit – tomate de arbol (usually juiced), mora (like blackberry), naranjillo
- Mote (large, savory corn)
- Chancho hornado (roast pig, found in the large markets)
- Tortilla de yuca, platanos maduros, or choclo (pancakes of yuca, ripe plantain, or corn)
- Morocho (creamed corn drink with cinnamon)
- Balones de platanos verdes (plantain balls)
- Pastries (bakeries are plentiful in Cuenca and there are many varieties to try)
- Canelazo (sugarcane-based alcohol served hot with cinnamon and sometimes fruit juice)
- Pan de yuca (fried balls of yuca dough available in special yuca and juice shops)
- Batidos (fresh smoothies/blended juice)
- Espumilla (whipped egg whites with fruit juice, often sold on the streets like an ice cream cone that can’t be melted)
- Panela-based treats (made from molasses/cane sugar)
- Guyaba sticks (These probably have a better name that I don’t know… they are guava puree formed into bricks, sometimes wrapped in wax paper, and they taste like fruit leather)
Our Top Picks for Almuerzos in Cuenca
El Tunel (Honorato Vasquez 6-80 and Luis Cordero)
Juice, soup, segundo, and small dessert – $2.50
Our new Peace Corps friends introduced us to this restaurant and we went back several times. It’s hard to find a better value for your $2.50 and the food is always tasty. The atmosphere is pretty nice, too, with three floors of seating.
El Bogavente (Thomas Ordonez and Mariscal Sucre)
Juice, soup, bread roll, segundo – $2.75
The set lunch at this restaurant has always been generous, especially with a decent portion of vegetables, tasty sauces, and the added bread roll – which is a bit unique. The atmosphere isn’t anything super special but looking at their regular menu, it’s not a cheap place, so the almuerzos are a great deal!
Moliendo Cafe (Honorato Vasquez and Hermano Miguel)
Juice, soup, piece of fruit, segundo – $2.50
After trying most of the restaurants around our Spanish language school, this Colombian restaurant was clearly one of the most popular (for expats and locals). Unlike other places, they give several choices for your entree, including a vegeterian option. The service is friendly and lunch is a great value – go before 1pm or you’ll probably have to wait for a table. We also went for dinner once, which was not quite as cheap but it was still good.
Good Affinity (Los Capulies and Gran Colombia)
Juice, soup, 4 selections with rice – $3 ($2.50 without soup)
We read about this one on another blog and though it’s a good mile walk out of the center, it was worth it. Food here is all vegetarian with an Asian twist. For the lunch plate, you get to choose four different sides from the “buffet” which are served in large portions on top of a white/brown rice mix. You can add a soup and juice to complete your large meal. The tempura-battered fish, vegetables, or soy “meat” were always really good, and the steamed broccoli was really well done, too. There’s plenty of seating indoor or outdoor, and SuperMaxi supermarket is not too far away if you need to run some errands!
Upstairs in the Mercado (10 de Agosto or 9 de Octubre)
Several options available – $1+
The two main produce markets in the heart of Cuenca both have a plethora of cook shops to choose from. Jedd’s favorite is the $1 chicken or pork bowl which is filled with rice, tasty broth, and veggies – you can even add a hard boiled egg for 25 cents. Michelle’s go-to is the smoothie ladies who blend up fruits like mora berries, coconut milk, or mango for fifty cents per cup. (Best to ask what’s available that day rather than rely on their signs.) The markets are also well known for hornado, a whole roasted pig, which you can order by the pound or have with mote or rice in a meal ($3-$5). Other snack vendors are cooking up a variety of tortillas (like plantain, corn, and yuca pancakes) and hot drinks (like hot chocolate and morocho).
Honorable Mentions for Almuerzos
Zona Refrescante (Benigno Malo and Simon Bolivar)
Juice, soup, segundo, dessert – $4
Although almost double the cost of our typical lunches, we went to this restaurant for lunch on Wednesdays to join the weekly Spanish conversation group, where we met some wonderful people (mostly retired expats). The food was always good, with a North American twist – entrees included chicken lasagna in cream sauce. And it includes a nice little dessert!
El Monarca (Juan Jaramillo 7-82 and Luis Cordero)
Juice, soup, segundo, popcorn, dessert – $3.50
I don’t have a picture for this one, unfortunately. The atmosphere of this place was pretty nice. It was not busy when we went, and I’m not sure the quality merited a whole 40% more in cost compared to most other almuerzos, but it was definitely good.
Bella Cuba (Honorato Vasquez and Hermano Miguel)
Juice, soup, popcorn, segundo – $2.50
There are several restaurants on this block. Though El Tunel and Moliendo Cafe beat out this one, it’s not a bad place, and probably a step above the cheaper Peruvian place next door.
El Nuevo Paraiso (multiple locations)
Juice, soup, mote, segundo – $2.40
This is a vegetarian “chain” that also serves fruit parfaits, smoothies, veggie burgers, pizza, etc. The set lunch included a soy-based patty and huge portions of vegetables over rice.
Francisco Asis (Mariscal Sucre and Mariano Cueva)
Juice, soup, popcorn, segundo, small dessert
Here’s another typical lunch spot with good value, not too far from the main square.
The only place we were really unimpressed with was called Sweet and Sour Cafe on Mariscal Sucre. The almuerzos are $3 which is more than what’s typical, yet we didn’t really get any additional value. We did try a few other places, too, that were fine for the price but aren’t really worth writing about.
Other Good Places to Eat in Cuenca
Although we primarily ate out for lunch because it was so cheap, there is so much more good food to experience in Cuenca! You might be surprised at how many different types of food are available, including Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Greek, American, fast food chains, pizza, and more. TripAdvisor even has a “Top 10 List of Italian Restaurants in Cuenca.” While we didn’t get even remotely close to visiting all of these, here are a few good places that we did try:
Casa del Pan (Mariscal Sucre and Tarqui)
This quickly became our favorite bakery and we ended up getting bread for breakfast and pastries for dessert here almost every day! Rolls are 25 cents or less, and the amazing cream-filled pastries with caramel on top were 75 cents. (Avoid the place across the street on the corner – they ripped us off and gave us stale bread!)
A Pedir de Boca (5-54 Benigno Malo)
This is a popular one among the expats living here long-term, as it’s one of the few places to get decent Thai-style food and other noodle dishes. Meals are a bit more expensive than the almuerzos prices we’re used to, but it’s still pretty reasonable. The chef/owner generously gives free weekly Spanish lessons on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons during his down time.
Windhorse Cafe (6-16 Calle Larga and Hermano Miguel)
Started by a couple of former Peace Corps Volunteers, this bright and pleasant coffee shop cafe would be the ideal place to work on the wifi, read in the upstairs library, or just enjoy a meal. A regular coffee (with milk on the side) is $1.25, lattes or mochas are $2.
Waffles de Belgica (Paseo 3 de Noviembre, Pumapungo)
Run by a Belgian expat who knows his waffles, this outdoor cafe is situated in an idyllic spot not far from the river walk, within the gated compound of the bird sanctuary and the ancient Pumapungo ruins. Ask if he’s doing a breakfast or lunch special, which usually includes fresh-squeezed orange juice and a waffle topping of your choice.
Tres Estrellas (Calle Larga and Jesus Arriaga)
When friends came to town looking for a sit-down dinner restaurant known for Ecuador’s delicacy of cuy (roasted guinea pig), we landed on this place. Cuy is certainly more expensive than the other entrees (over $20) and by nature, has very little meat. It was interesting to try, although I can’t say any of us were craving more. Our other dishes were good, the atmosphere was nice, and there were many local families enjoying a late Carnaval dinner when we went.
Cafe Austria (Hermano Miguel and Simon Bolivar)
We heard good things about this place from digital nomads and expats, though it is quite expensive (for Cuenca). We met up with a friend of a friend in this modern, European-style cafe and had a nice canelazo and a so-so dessert.
Maria’s Alemania Bakery (Hermano Miguel 8-09 and Mariscal Sucre)
For more great pastries and European-style bread, this bakery and cafe is known for their quality. Large pastries are $1.10 – $1.30.
Did we ever get sick from the food in Ecuador?
Short answer: nope! As a matter of fact, we felt pretty good the whole two months. Michelle’s joint pain and headaches actually decreased, and Jedd lost some weight. As for water, our hosts in Quito had us drinking and brushing our teeth with bottled water. Locals in Cuenca said the water there is better. We still bought large bottles for our drinking water but we used the tap to brush our teeth and wash dishes while in Cuenca. When eating out, we didn’t avoid raw vegetables or ice like we might in other places. Maybe we have tougher stomachs than most, but in general, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about getting sick from the food in Cuenca.
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