By Susan Burke March
Cuenca may seem like a city of almuerzos serving pollo, cerdo, y arroz, arroz, arroz, (chicken, pork, and rice, rice, rice!) so the opening of the charming Vegetable Bar on Paseo 3 de Noviembre signals a significant and positive change for the better.
As a registered dietitian who has not eaten red meat since I read the book “Diet for a Small Planet” when I was 19 years old (many moons ago!), I’ve found eating healthfully in restaurants, even those that might call themselves “vegetarian” or offer a vegetarian option, can be a challenge.
A “vegetarian” almuerzo might deliver a soup with pieces of gray beef floating in it. A bean stew is typically served with white rice — vegetarian to be sure, but…too much starch! The “vegetarian tamale” might be drenched with white cheese — not my idea of a healthy meal. Most juices are sweetened with sugar.
Plant-based diets have been shown repeatedly to be the healthiest way to eat, providing all of the nutrients necessary for good health without compromising the health of the consumer or the planet. Shifting to more plant foods lowers risk for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, but there are certain nutrients present in animal foods that are difficult to obtain through a strictly vegan diet. If you choose to eat meat, choose organically raised, unprocessed meat — and keep your portions small. Read my column on vegan diets here.
We all need to eat, but why should eating mostly plants be boring? If food doesn’t taste good, why bother? Eating is both a source of sustenance as well as pleasure, and one shouldn’t be to the exclusion of the other.
That’s why I’m excited about the opening of the Vegetable Bar, just to the east of the “big stairs” on Paseo 3 de Noviembre, across the river from Parque de la Madre.
The Vegetable Bar’s slogan is “Drink fresh, eat healthy”. And you could literally eat all of your meals here — and not be bored. The menu is a smart balance of vegetarian and non-vegetarian choices, including soups, salads, paninis and blended drinks. I sat down with founder and owner Michael, to find out what inspired him to create this much-appreciated dining alternative, and to see what developments are on the horizon.
S.B.M. Michael, I know that you and your partner Cody’s restaurant, Eucalyptus, is a popular destination for locals and expats. My husband and I love the atmosphere and enjoy unique preparations that we can’t find elsewhere in Cuenca, such as your fabulous Mediterranean appetizer plate with baba ghanoush and hummus, and other non-meat options. What inspired you to open The Vegetable Bar?
M: I am a Registered Pharmacist by training, and know first-hand how lifestyle and diet impacts health and well-being of people. My partner and fiancé Cody is a vegetarian, and I only occasionally eat chicken or meat — we both enjoy a plant-based diet.
Since arriving in Cuenca from Colorado 10 years ago, I’ve seen such a change. It’s obvious that the increase in consumption of processed foods and decrease in fresh fruits and vegetables negatively impact the health and weight of people. Obesity is directly correlated with the increase in type 2 diabetes and what’s happening in Ecuador is no different than what’s happening throughout the world. We want to be part of the process that helps turn the tide of obesity.
In Colorado, and in cities around the U.S. it’s fairly easy to find a restaurant that features locally grown and organic foods, but tasty vegetarian options are rare in Cuenca. When this marvelous location on 3 de Noviembre became available, Cody and I saw an opportunity to not only open a vegetarian spot, but to also support local growers, and possibly make a difference in the local community.
For example, there’s a local pilot project that is currently taking place in Cuenca called CATCH — they’re helping teachers coach children to eat better and move more. The Vegetable Bar is going to host a fun Kids Day, where 40 kids will come to our restaurant and we’ll have a hands-on workshop, showing kids all about healthy and delicious foods, and do some preparation, and of course, some eating!
Editor’s Note: Read more about CATCH in Cuenca here.
S.B.M: Tell me about your menu — I love that it is simple, but at the same time there’s so much variety, especially in your ingredients. I’m also impressed that all your menu items have detailed descriptions and nutritional information.
M: Our goals are simple — to bring to the table the freshest, healthiest food we can find. Our promise to our customers is to source organic foods as much as possible. We work with a well-known local cooperative of 25 organic farmers and also have an agreement with an organic grower in the Yunguilla valley and purchase all the produce that he grows — we’re his sole customer. Each morning we receive deliveries — the produce may be picked at dawn, and it’s on your plate — fresh, crunchy, and delicious — by the time you order it for lunch. Personally, I won’t eat a salad if it’s not crunchy — crunchy means it’s really fresh. And being so fresh, the difference in the taste of the foods is dramatic. We pride ourselves on food safety and wash all of our produce three times before preparing.
To decide on our menu items, we reviewed many successful and highly reviewed restaurant menus, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. We taste-tested, reviewed, revised and tweaked for almost a year before deciding on our final menu. We felt that all the menu items should also feature a detailed description of the ingredients, and worked very hard to provide nutritional information too. We know that many of our customers make their decisions based on that information.
We cook fresh, wholesome food every day.
We offer eight different vegetarian salads including a pasta salad, and to satisfy our non-vegetarian customers, we offer the option of grilled chicken, shrimp, and our house-marinated grilled steak to any salad.
We make all of our own salad dressings using fresh ingredients and herbs, and we don’t add a lot of salt to our dressings or to our foods. As a pharmacist I know that restaurant food is notoriously high in sodium, and we strive to keep our food tasty but healthy.
We offer four different paninis, or toasted sandwiches, all made fresh-to-order. Two are vegetarian — our “Very Veggie”, and the popular “Caprese”, with fresh tomato, basil pesto, and fresh mozzarella. Our “Swiss Chicken” features slow-roasted pulled chicken, ripe avocado, and a thick slice of Swiss cheese. Our signature “Cubano” gets raves — it’s made with our house dill pickles, ham, and slow-roasted pulled chicken, on toasted wheat bread.
Soups range from comforting and creamy, to hot and spicy. The “Hot Potato” is pure comfort, and the “Green with Envy” pea soup with kale, garlic and onions is surprisingly flavorful — until you taste it you might have thought that pea soup is boring. The spicy “Too Hot Tortilla” soup contains real jalapenos (watch out!) and the “Va Va Veggie” soup has more vegetables than you can count.
Our fresh juices are all made from locally sourced fruits and vegetables. Fresh means naturally rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and are linked to health benefits such as lowering high blood pressure and natural energy. We don’t use regular table sugar in any of our juice combos. Many customers are so surprised to find how delicious a smoothie can be when it’s sweetened only with naturally sweet fruits.
S.B.M: Your location is just the best — I love that you’re “in” the city, but because the Vegetable Bar is on the Rio Tomebamba and across the river from the traffic, it’s muy tranquillo to sit outdoors under the shaded roof, and enjoy the scenery.
M: Yes, not only are we on the river, we’re across from Parque de la Madre, where people exercise, run, participate in aerobics and dance classes, and just relax on the benches and enjoy the park.
We’re set to open our new “to go” juice bar soon, and will cater to those early walkers and runners, and those early birds out with their dogs. You’ll be able to stop by for a fresh juice combo, and since the Vegetable Bar is a good neighbor and wants to keep Cuenca clean, just return the cup for a 15¢ refund.
Our café is currently open for breakfast at 8 AM and lunch through about 3 PM, but we are happily so busy that we’re going to expand our hours.
S.B.M.: What’s next for you and Cody?
M: We’ve expanded our patio, seating people both in the main seating area and in the newly constructed umbrella-shaded patio to the west. Our new breakfast menu will feature egg dishes, stuffed paninis, oatmeal, granola, and of course, pan integral, coffee, and fresh juice combos.
And I’m excited to share the news about our new location. We’ve taken space in the fantastic new condominium, on the corner of 3 de Noviembre y Jacaranda, west of Avenida de Americas on the Rio Tomebamba and we’re on schedule to open by the end of May 2016.
The new restaurant has seating inside for 60, plus there’s a beautiful patio area that seats 40. We’ll feature all of the items we’re currently offering at the Vegetable Bar, plus we’ll be staying open until 7 PM with an expanded menu, including eggplant parmesan, gluten-free pizza and more.
We will also have a retail store at this location and look forward to selling organic produce and other locally sourced foods.
S.B.M.: Thanks, Michael. I know that the readers will agree that the Vegetable Bar is a concept whose time has come — a place to go and relax in an outdoor café with friends — where you can enjoy fresh, nutritious, and most importantly, delicious foods and beverages — without suffering the exhaust of Cuenca’s buses and cars!
I think type of people who dine at the Vegetable Bar really want to taste their food, not just eat food. Check out the Facebook page for daily specials.
The Vegetable Bar
We’ll buy fresh
We’ll serve fresh
We’ll make sure we get the healthiest ingredients we can find
Because we know that eating healthy means living healthy
And that’s what we want to help you do each and every day!