By Stephen Vargha
Worldwide, there is no shortage of delicious and highly rated vegan restaurants. The website Happy Cow, that works like Yelp, but only for vegan and vegetarian food, lists at least 5,523 plant-based restaurants in South America. Not surprising, Brazil has the most with 2,402. Ecuador is sixth with 261 listings, and that includes the relatively new El Oasis in Cuenca.
This up-and-coming Cuenca restaurant serves a seven-course meal that is strictly vegan as it has no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), gluten, or soy. Its meals are gluten-free and almost everything is made in house. El Oasis is only open Wednesday through Saturday, with just one sitting at 6 p.m. Dinners last about three hours.
“We never announce what we are preparing. We want it to be adventure dining,” chef and owner Mico EagleFeather says. “We want people to know it is more than an experience; it is a gastronomic ceremony.”
His partner, Annie Lulu concurs. “We want to create the experience for our guests; everyone is really special.”
A native of the North American Lakota indian tribe, EagleFeather started a gourmet vegan restaurant in Vilcabamba in 2017 that served food family style. Lulu, who hails from southern Germany and had been in financial services with Deutsche Bank, became a partner in the current restaurant in July of last year.
“I quickly learned family style was not for me. I wanted to do higher end… Michelin-style,” EagleFeather said.
Family-style dining, also known as casual-style dining, offers moderately priced entrees that feature a mix of classic and well-known cuisines, a fusion of fast food and fine dining.
Michelin-style is at the opposite end of the dining spectrum. Since 1926, Michelin stars have been awarded to restaurants judged to be of an extremely high standard. Unlike other rating systems such as TripAdvisor, Michelin stars are not based on customer reviews, but on undercover inspections by anonymous food experts.
EagleFeather closed his restaurant in Vilcabamba and moved to Cuenca in January 2020 with the hopes of opening in April. The first hurdle was finding the right place and location. “It was not easy to find the right space. Many owners did not want a food business in their buildings,” EagleFeather said. “They had concerns about smoke and food smells.” A location was finally found on the western end of El Centro, on Calle Lamar, in a gorgeous historic building that was renovated to its origins. The couple quickly adapted the space to their restaurant needs.
Then the pandemic struck. “Because of people’s attitudes about Covid, and because of the health restrictions, we waited to open,” EagleFeather said.
The extra time in July, August, and September gave the couple time to work on the creative side of their dinners. “We wanted to have original foods every two weeks,” EagleFeather said. Before they opened their doors, El Oasis had four complete menus for its seven-course dinners that includes five drinks. For people who do not drink alcohol, El Oasis has non-alcoholic options.
“The entire menu is a combination of our inputs. Everything is a creation by both of us,” EagleFeather said. “Everything is not presented the same. Annie does one style, and I do a second style.” Annie added: “We want to see your plate as a work of art.”
Though the courses is prepared the same, the presentation may look different than that of the person who is sitting next to you at El Oasis as both chefs prepare the plates. A heartfelt explanation for each plate is given to the guests at their tables. “It is important that we are there for every plate. We want people to feel welcomed,” Annie exclaimed. “We want El Oasis to be a place where people, the community come together.”
For an added experience, El Oasis offers a Chef’s Table for two people. It is for guests of the two chefs. The bar-type seating in the kitchen can be reserved on any given day for your special occasion. It is a great up-and-close experience as the couple gets to watch EagleFeather and Lulu in action in their kitchen.
EagleFeather’s food philosophy and his favorite foods has been quite the journey. “I was a hardcore carnivore. Steak and onions were my favorite.” While living with his father, Saturday mornings was a time to eat whatever he wanted. “I literally ate two pounds of bacon in a sitting,” EagleFeather said.
He started changing his diet for health reasons. The last meat EagleFeather ate was in 2012 in Costa Rica. “In a course of six months, I went from a carnivore to a vegan,” EagleFeather said. “I had to learn to cook with new ingredients.”
It helped that EagleFeather started as a prep cook at the historic Boulderado Hotel, the busiest restaurant in Boulder, Colorado. From there, he was at several plant-based restaurants in the Colorado college town.
Those experiences led him back to Costa Rica, where he operated a plant-based bed and breakfast in Nuevo Arenal. His B&B lasted only one year as the owners sold the property. The sale brought EagleFeather to Ecuador, where he fine-tuned his skills.
A test run for El Oasis with four carnivores was done prior to the restaurant’s October 1 opening. All four of them are chefs in Cuenca. “They were blown away! Jose (Calvo) comes back once a month with his friends,” EagleFeather said.
Both EagleFeather and Annie says it is more than just the food that has made El Oasis an exceedingly popular place. It is the attention to detail with fresh flower petals decorating the community table to EagleFeather’s father, Steve Clair, “smudging” the restaurant before any guests arrive. Smudging is an ancient ceremony in which you burn sacred plants, such as sage, to allow the smoke to clear and bless a space.
In their short time being open, El Oasis is already at #76 out of 518 restaurants in Cuenca, on TripAdvisor. That is quite an accomplishment as the travel website bases the rankings on an aggregate that includes the number of reviews posted.
EagleFeather thinks he knows why El Oasis is ranked so highly in such a short time. “There is a flow to every meal. There will never be an exact menu. My style is all about contrast, color textures, and mouth-feel.” The way things are eaten also matters. “Sometimes I encourage people to eat things with their fingers. It becomes an entire body experience,” EagleFeather said.
There is enough to eat for everyone. That is especially true with two desserts. For many, it truly is a culinary art experience. “When dinner is over, many times people do not want to leave! They’ve had such a great time,” EagleFeather says with a smile.
Photos by Stephen Vargha