photos: David Paul Appell
Way up in the Andes, Ecuador’s capital city – the word’s highest official capital – is something muy especial indeed, its bustling modern precincts surrounding a historic old town dating back to 1543 that is not only Latin America’s largest but also the very first UNESCO World Heritage Site, back in 1978. And while you’re taking in Quito’s inspiring sights, sounds, and experiences, naturally you’ll want to amply sample the local food. It’s available in many venues, from simple streetside cantinas up to fancy high-end restaurants dishing out both traditional and creative nouvel Ecuadoran cuisine (and all, by the way, at bargain prices compared to Europe and North America).
First allow me a bit what that cuisine actually is like. Since much of Ecuador is fairly high-altitude and mountainous, with a cool climate, its signature dishes tend to be quite hearty, including lots of stews and thick soups, such as locro de papa (chunky potato soup, above), seco de chivo (stewed goat), and guatitas (tripe stew). There’s a tropical lowland coast along the Pacific, too, which contributes encebollado (fish stew), patacones (fried plantains, often served with fresh cheese and hot sauce), and ceviche (shared, of course, with neighbors like Peru and Chile). And if tripe stew isn’t adventurous enough for you, have a go at the roast cuy – guinea pig (while I do eat meat, on my last visit, after laying eyes on an adorable pair of live ones, I admit couldn’t bring myself to order it, splayed out on the plate with head, feet, and all).
A dessert classic, in the meantime, is higos con queso (figs in, syrup accompanied by fresh cheese, below), and typical drinks include sweet chicha, made from maize or quinoa (a little intense for my taste, so I water it down a bit), and canelazo, a hot toddy of sugarcane liquor blended with fruit juice, cinnamon, and sometimes cloves.
Quito’s centro histórico is full of eateries, especially to serve lunch to the office, retail, and other workers who throng the area by day, and at spots like indoor/outdoor La Guaragua on the pedestrian street Calle Eugenio Espejo, and nearby Restaurante Oasis on Calle Mejía, you can get a multicourse lunch for $3 (the currency used in Ecuador is the U.S. dollar).
There is also plenty of “finer” dining to be had in the old town – both for lunch and dinner (when the area is very quiet indeed). Perhaps my favorite for a combination of ambiance – in the courtyard of an early-colonial aristrocratic manse – is the restaurant of El Patio Andaluz hotel (top), with a mix of delectable Ecuadoran, Spanish, and international dishes.
Nearby on Plaza Grande, the old town’s central square, the former Archbishop’s Palace is now home to an interesting bunch of shops and eateries, including Hasta la Vuelta Señor, on the fourth-floor balcony of a courtyard atrium (the name means “When I Return, Lord”, an homage to a well-known local tale about a naughty 16th-century friar). At the front of the building, with superb views out on the plaza and the presidential palace, Mea Culpa (above) has more of a refined, Old World feel and even finer takes on traditional Ecuadoran fare. You’ll also dine well on such fare at Vista Hermosa, but really, this restaurant’s top selling point is the titular lovely view from its rooftop dining terrace out over the historic centre and El Panecillo hill, crowned by a huge statue of the Virgin Mary.
Beyond the historic centre, Quito’s main districts for hotels, restaurants, and entertainment is La Mariscal and La Floresta, a 15-minute taxi ride north. Plenty of great traditional fare out here, too, such as the nostalgically furnished Lo Nuestro at Calle Isabel la Catolica 535. But this is also the area to experience some top-drawer nouvel Ecuadoran. On my recent visit I discovered chef Mauricio Acuña’s Patria (above), one of several innovative restaurants on or around La Mariscal’s Calle Whymper. Brilliant ceviches, and I loved my grilled octopus with tangy tomato and garlic cream, accompanied by puffed purple potatoes. Other outstanding example of Ecuadorian with a gourmet touch and clean, contemporary atmosphere is Achiote, which is also conveniently located in the Plaza Foch nightlife district. And finally, one of the hits of 2016 out here is La Platea (below), the country’s first “food trucks plaza”, with both Ecuadoran and international fare along with the feel of a hip street party - on a recent Sarturday night, the place was noshing and hopping!