Editor’s note: Since becoming Cuenca expats in May of 2010, Edd and Cynthia Staton have created a life beyond their wildest expectations. In addition to their duties as International Living correspondents and speakers, the two make frequent trips back to the States to visit their four grandchildren, maintain a whirlwind social schedule, and travel throughout Ecuador and beyond. They love that their adopted hometown of Cuenca continues to get better and better!
By Edd and Cynthia Staton
We get it — a lot of expats aren’t fans of almuerzos. Huge piles of rice (sometimes with potatoes and mote) accompanied by a paltry portion of meat and an even smaller “salad.” Sure, the price is right, but . . . .
enter 4 Reales, a wildly popular new Ecuadorian restaurant across the street from the stadium. Open only two months, owner Pablo Garcia says, “We were packed our very first weekend and it’s been that way ever since.”
What’s the secret? Let’s start with the space itself. Considering Cuenca’s mild, comfortable climate there is a scarcity of al fresco dining options around town. At 4 Reales the main dining room is a huge covered patio. Plantings and pleasant background music keep any traffic noise to a minimum. A nice bar and a kiddie play area (discreetly off to the side) are other features of the space, and there are two small indoor dining areas as well.
The restaurant offers a broad range of hot and cold beverages, beer, wine, and cocktails. While lemonade with mint appeared to be a popular option we ordered the signature 4 Reales cocktail ($3.00), a blend of agua fresca and vodka. While the pink color was a bit off-putting, the drink proved so refreshing that we ordered another round.
The cuisine is traditional Ecuadorian, with specialty dishes from different areas of the country accompanied by a description of the dishes’ history and ingredients. An example is seco de chivo, a goat dish that the menu says is of uncertain origin but most likely comes from Loja, Santa Elena, or Guayas.
We started by sharing a HUGE bowl of locro de papas ($4.50), and it was possibly the best version we’ve tried — chunky potato soup with a slice of avocado and hard-boiled egg. A spoonful of ahi added just the right amount of heat.
The menu stated that the ceviche de camaron ($7.50) was a customer favorite, so Cynthia decided to find out why. She was rewarded with a generous serving of plump shrimp swimming alongside thin slivers of red onion in a zesty broth of tomato and lime juice.
On Saturday and Sunday at 4 Reales, the house special, a meal featuring whole roasted pig ($6.50), was an easy choice for Edd. His plate arrived filled with chunks of succulent pork, mote, tomatoes and red onion, and small potato pancakes (llapingachos, which originated in Ecuador). Yum!
We were quite full but what’s a restaurant review without mentioning the desserts, right? So in the name of good journalism we asked our waiter to bring us the two most traditional postres on the menu.
One was a simple serving of vanilla ice cream and a sweetened (a bit too sweet for us) fruit called zapallo, which is kin to pumpkin. The other was espumilla de mora, a version of that ice cream looking stuff on trays you’ve seen ladies selling in parks and outside of schools. If you ever wondered, this concoction is made with fruit pulp, egg whites, and sugar and usually piled into cones.
After living here for years and seeing espumilla for sale countless times this was our first time trying it. And it may be the last. Literally translated as “foam,” there really wasn’t much to it. Fortunately, there’s a chocolate volcano on the menu that will probably better suit our North American taste buds next visit.
Two tips to pass along: Saturday and Sunday are extremely popular for Ecuadorians to eat out, so act like a gringo and show up early on those days. Every seat was full at 1 p.m. on the Sunday we visited. Also keep in mind that all prices, which are incredibly reasonable, include both the 12% IVA and 10% service charge.
If almuerzos have been your primary exposure to Ecuadorian cuisine, a visit to 4 Reales will be a revelation. Generous portions of well-prepared food at extremely reasonable prices served in a pleasant setting by an attentive staff — what’s not to like?
4 Reales is open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Parking’s available on the street and in the rear of the restaurant.
Address: Av. del Estadio 2-94 y Roberta Crespo Toral