Editor’s note: This is the second of a four-part series about vegetarian and vegan dining and shopping options in Cuenca. To read part one, click here.
Text and photos by John Keeble
Cuenca is a beautiful, sophisticated city – and it is taking its place in modern diversity with a growing range of eateries where you can enjoy vegan and vegetarian (veg*n) meals and light bites.
Veg*n diners are spoilt for choice when it comes to breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are many veg*n specialists but the choice is multiplied as enterprising, creative proprietors produce delicious and affordable veg*n options. It is possible to get an excellent veg*n almuerzo for as little as $2.50 or try tastes from around the world.
For vegetarians, it is easy to find good meals at good prices. For vegans, who eat no animal products, it is more difficult but surprisingly possible. A knowledge of Spanish can be a big help.
Coffee houses like Cafe Austria cannot be beaten for ambience and service in the big cities of the world with tempting menu items including veg*n meals, delightful vegetarian treats such as strudel, and even vegan scones and bread.
Huge and comfortable ice cream shops like Monte Bianco have an easy-going culture of their own and, while vegetarians can take any choice among dozens of flavours, vegans have many options too with non-dairy fruit flavours including lemon, passion fruit, Andean blackberry and guanábana. For sheer taste, the small Helados de Paila, by Parque de la Madre, is superb.
Here are some of the best ‘tried and tasted’ veg*n places to enjoy – but ‘best’ is an opinion and there are many more to choose from. Price levels vary but all are moderate and the service is good, friendly and efficient.
A Pedir de Boca … various options including the best vegan hamburger meal in town.
Chill ‘n’ Grill … great veg*n grilled vegetable sandwiches with basil fries – and, free with the meal, the best maracuyá aji in town.
Simon 7-84 … wonderful ‘courtyard’ ambience, choice of veg*n dishes on the menu. Vegetarian Holly Shrader goes there with her non-vegetarian husband Lee. “It is the best place for us to eat,” she said.
La Quinua … one of the best-known veg*n restaurants that maintains a very high standard of cooking. It serves veg*n choices across a range of Ecuadorian and international cuisines.
SlaGreen … new veg*n eatery at the San Blas end of Calle Simon Bolivar. Good quality almuerzo for only $2.50, plus menu dishes.
Good Affinity … Chinese-style lunchtime restaurant offering beautifully prepared meals, as well as selling take-out ingredients such as tofu and soya sauce.
Govinda’s … Good Ecuadorian-style veg*n almuerzos, very comfortable decor in ‘small rooms’ layout, always popular.
Mexican Cafeterio de la Catedral Vieja … behind the old cathedral in Parque Calderón at lunchtime. Delightful courtyard ambience and good veg*n adaptations from the menu.
Bayou Caffe … tucked away in a beautifully converted home; creative, quality meals including several veg*n dishes – plus vegan pancakes and vegan scones. Owner/chef Sebastian creates veg*n specials if requested.
Thai Connection … now in an easy El Centro location and offering a range of Thai favourites like green curry, tom ka (sparkling coconut soup) and vegetables with ginger. The menu states everything in non-veg*n terms but veg*n adaptations are available on request.
How restaurants see veg*n food and veg*ns
Good Affinity Chinese vegan and vegetarian restaurant serves fantastic almuerzos from Monday to Saturday.
Colour is one of the first things that hit you when you get one of Good Affinity’s $3 vegan or vegetarian almuerzos – the red of the sweet peppers, the yellows of the squash, the green of the celery and so on.
I ate there recently and counted 10 different vegetables in my almuerzo of soup, main course and fruit drink. There are eight options at the almuerzo counter and each customer can choose four main course options, plus soup, plus one of three or four drinks including soya milk and lemon squash.
In addition, Good Affinity offers a fast a la carte service with combos like chow mein, soup and drink for $3.50 – the most expensive combo on the menu is $4.
I also buy its products for home cooking: the tofu is superb, with two blocks for $2; and its soya sauce is perfect for my home dishes.
“About 30% of our clients are vegans or vegetarians,” said Hsiao-hui Lai, who opened the restaurant with her husband Daniel Cheng about 13 years ago. They, their children, and Daniel’s parents are all vegetarians. “The non-vegetarians come because of the taste of the food and our prices.
“My vegetarian diet keeps me young. It is light and keeps my mind and body clear. We are vegetarians because we respect life – every living thing was created, all have feelings. Our actions are based on mercy.”
Their beliefs also include the idea that everything is linked. “If you make something suffer, the cruelty will come back to you,” Hsiao-hui, aged 40, said.
Good Affinity, in Gran Colombia near Las Americas, is open Monday to Saturday from 11.30am to 3.30pm
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La Quinua vegetarian & vegan restaurant has a traditional feel to it – but the menu is a fine mixture of Ecuadorian and world dishes carefully prepared by the owner-chef Cesar Pesantez Cali. Prices are low to medium.
My favourite, Patatas Bombay, is the best in town and other international dishes include hamburguesa de soya especial and pizza de vegetales especial. Platos tradicionales include paella de Quinua; pastas include gnocchi en salsa de tomate; and there are selections of soups and salads. The humus aperitivo is excellent and, unfortunately, the meals are always plentiful enough to make the postres selection theoretical rather than practical. Almuerzos are excellent.
“I have worked in the restaurant business for 30 years but in 2001 I became a vegetarian for spiritual and health reasons,” said Cesar. “I wanted to open a vegetarian restaurant and, 13 years ago, I opened Quinua.
“Being vegetarian is a much cleaner way to live. It looks after the planet and our health. There are not many Ecuadorian vegetarians in Cuenca, but I get many people who like to come here because they know this diet does no harm and that they are 100% safe with what I serve.”
La Quinua, at Calle Benigno Malo 12-75, is planning to expand its services by offering medicinal herb extracts.
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Bayou Caffe, which caters for meat and fish eaters as well as vegetarians and vegans, is a very comfortable restaurant which also opens its space to makers of artisan bread and other products on Monday afternoons.
“There is a trend towards vegetarian and vegan food,” said owner and chef Sebastian Vallejo. “The trend has been growing – many people are becoming vegetarian and some vegetarians are becoming vegans. Two of my meat-eating clients say they are now vegetarian.
“People want to be healthy and choose these diets. Some expats do it because they do not like the meat in Ecuador – it has a different flavour from the U.S.”
Sebastian, who trained as a chef but who has extensive experience in the hotels and restaurants sector, was ahead of the trend towards vegetarianism. He found when he opened Bayou Caffee that his veg*n dishes were less popular than non-veg*n dishes. But, as vegetarians and vegans have found out that he has several options on his menu and that he is willing to make meals especially for them, that part of the business has increased.
An unusual option is a dish of vegan pancakes with maple syrup. They are made from almond milk, corn starch, sugar and flour. Sebastian also makes delicious vegan scones, served with jam, and he adapts many other menu dishes for veg*ns.
Bayou Caffee is at Los Fresnos 2-70 near Los Alisos.
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SlaGreen veg*n restaurant is a new family-run eatery open to everyone but relying on non-veg*n Ecuadorians who appreciate its good food and good prices.
The eatery’s focus is on providing good-quality, nutritious food based on ingredient combinations taught by the Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement. It has been an immediate hit, with every table filled at the busiest lunch hour.
“We offer vegetarian and vegan fast-food,” said Katherine Gomezcoello, one of the family that runs SlaGreen. “Most of the people who come here are not vegetarians. They come here because they like the food.”
She added: “We know how to mix the ingredients to make a good diet.” Meat is replaced with nutritious veg*n ingredients and prices are low enough to attract Ecuadorian workers and others who want a change from their usual diets.
SlaGreen is next to Hotel Majestic on Gran Colombia near Manuel Vega.
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Sunrise Cafe is an expats’ favourite and the good-natured owner and staff are always ready to oblige with veg*n menu dishes or specials. Their excellent English language skills make it easy to communicate special dietary requirements.
Sunrise is on Calle Larga near Benigno Malo. It opens for breakfast and lunch.
John Keeble is an international photo-journalist living in Cuenca. He ‘retired’ after 25 years with The Guardian in London and has spent the past 11 years giving media services to NGOs as well as writing about and illustrating social issues. He is a life vegetarian and has been a vegan for more than 30 years. He has had wide coverage for his articles and photographs since moving to Cuenca in February 2016 and he recently started a Facebook group, Cuenca Vegans & Vegetarians, to make it easier for veg*ns to find restaurants and supplies.