The Cuenca almuerzo: It’s what’s for lunch!

The Spanish verb “to eat lunch” is almorzar. The noun is almuerzo (ahl-MWAIR-so). You notice the Arabic influence of the term in “al”; in addition, any Spanish spelling with a “z” in it is also a hand-me-down from the Arabic languages. Almuerzo has both.

The traditional almuerzo, also known as menu del día, is a fixed-price fixed-menu lunch, served from around 12:30 p.m. till around 3 p.m. in Ecuador. Traditionally, the almuerzo is the big meal of the day.

Most offices and many stores close for two hours in the afternoon, the Latin custom of a leisurely lunch. In Cuenca, you won’t find too many people working through their lunch breaks, wolfing down fast food between customers or keystrokes. Here, there’s plenty of time to sit, eat slowly and breathe, relax, enjoy the other people at the table, digest, and get back to work without having a stroke. Many even go home to have lunch with their spouses and children.

As such, breakfast (desayuno) is usually light, with an egg or two, a roll or croissant with butter (mantequilla) or jam (mermelada), perhaps a couple slices of queso fresco (local medium-soft cheese), fresh

fruit juice, and tea or coffee.

Supper (merienda) is also light, basically a snack, often a sandwich, although European and North American influences are adding calories to Ecuadorian dining habits.

Dinner (cena) is generally more formal and can be a big social meal, usually on weekends. It rarely starts earlier than 8:30 p.m. and sometimes continues into the wee hours.

Back to the almuerzo . . . there are endless variations on the theme. Many start with a bowl of popcorn, which goes great slathered in ají (the local salsa, make fresh daily from recipes that vary slightly family to family); others are launched with a bowl of mote (big kernels of white corn). Then comes six or eight ounces of fruit juice, usually fresh but sometimes more like coolaide, followed by a bowl of soup, usually potato-based, but sometimes lentil, quinoa, or corn (you might also see vegetable, chicken, or beef, though usually at the more expensive almuerzos). Some restaurants offer a choice of soup or salad.

The main plato (plate or entree) is some combination of rice, fries, avocado, patacones (fried slices of plantain), maybe a small salad or steamed vegetables, and a piece of beef or a chicken part, often in sauce.

Seco de pollo or carne (meaning that it’s served with rice) is also common.

Most almuerzos cost $2.50-$3.50. Upscale lunches can rise to $4 and even $6.50; these definitely cater to a gringo and upper-class Ecuadorian clientele.

Actually, for some reason, you’ll see few expats at the best-value alumuerzos; the exception is at Don Colon’s restaurant, across from Parque Calderon, which serves an excellent one for $4.75.

Working-class Cuencanos, along with students and retirees, frequent the $1.50-$2.50 almuerzos. Many of these restaurants have neither names nor signs and even fewer have menus, though some have chalkboards out front that list the fare of the day. You walk into the storefront of someone’s El Centro house, sit down, and the food starts arriving, often placed in front of you by a coming-of-ager in the family; you’ll see servers as young as 12, especially during school vacations.

At these almuerzos típicos, “counting carbs” often means adding up all the different kinds of carbohydrates put in front of you on the plate, rather than how many calories of carbs you consume. For example, an almuerzo at a nameless signless menuless front-room restaurant near Feria Libre (the largest mercado in Cuenca) comes with five. This carbfest could fuel a marathon: soup with both potato and mote, then a lunch plate with rice, a fat patacone (fried plantain), and a tuna-casserole thing, with bits of tuna on mounds of spaghetti smothered in sauce.

For those new to the almuerzo tradition, here are some popular Cuenca options:

El Meson Español, Luis Cordero at Juan Jaramillo; Moliendo Cafe, Honorato Vasquez at Hermano Miguel; Terra, Benigno Malo at Jaramillo; and El Rincon, Presidente Cordova at Luis Cordero; Don Colon, Sucre at Benigno Malo; For an upscale almuerzo, try Cafe Austria, Hermano Miguel at Simon Bolivar.

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