For nearly two decades, if you wanted Mexican food in Cuenca, you had only one choice: El Pedregal Azteca (“The Rocky Aztec”), where María and Juan Manuel Ramoshave been serving authentic northern Mexican cuisine since 1989.
Located in the heart of El Centro on Gran Colombia near Padre Aguirre, the Azteca is known for a number of specialties. The tortillas are handmade on the premises. You get three sopas, small corn tortillas with beans, sausage, and cheese, for $3.50. The Prehispanica de Nopal is a traditional cactus-leaf preparation with coriander, tomato, and onion ($5.50). The truchafrita (fried trout) is a whole fish fresh from the nearby trout farms in the Cajas ($9). The mole poblano combines Mexican chiles with the distinctive mole sauce, along with peanuts, almonds, sesame, and 17 additional ingredients ($13).
But the six-page bilingual menu is packed with Mexican favorites. Appetizers include quesadillas (three for $3.50), tostadas ($4.25), flautitas (three for $3.50), and miniburritos filled with beans, eggs, and sausage (three for $3.50); you can try them all by ordering the appetizer plate for $11.25.
Huevos are served all day: rancheros; scrambled with potatoes in a green sauce; scalded with green peppers and tomatoes; or mixed with vegetables ($5.50-$7). You can build your own tacos with various meats, cheeses, and beans ($11.50 for one up to $41 for four). Big burritos go for around $6, while chilaquiles (shredded and fried corn tortillas covered with sauce, cheese, and sour cream) are $6.40. Fish dishes, fajitas, chilesrellenos stuffed with shrimp, enchiladas, and grilled beef, chicken, and pork dishes round out the dinner menu, all in the $10-$12.50 range. If you have room, try the buñuelos (crispy wheat tortillas with honey) or rice pudding, both $3.50, for dessert.
The Azteca also offers a popular lunch special: for $3, you get a burrito, big salad, egg-and-sausage stew, or chile con carne, plus chips and a soda; for $4.50, you get chicken or beef fajitas, refried beans, soda, and ice cream.
El Pedregal Azteca is open Monday-Saturday 12-3 p.m. and 6:30 to 11 p.m.
Another Mexican restaurant that’s been around for a while is Pronto Tacos, one of several eateries lined up on José Peralta near the Stadium; it’s open daily from noon to 10 p.m.
The meal starts with homemade tortilla chips accompanied by little pots of guacamole, refried beans, and two kinds of salsa. The menu isn’t as extensive as Azteca’s, but it has plenty of authentic Mexican dishes, all prepared on the grill right behind the counter in the front room.
The burritos (beef or chicken, $3-$3.50) and fajitas (choice of meat, $4-$8) are big and hearty, but the play at Pronto is, naturally, the tacos. They’re small and open-faced and you have your choice of beef, chicken, pork, vegetarian, or mixed ($2-$3).
Pronto Tacos is a working man’s kind of place and does a big take-out business. If you’re looking for an upscale fajitas experience, however, the place to go is the Puerto Grill, at the corner of Gran Colombia and Unidad Nacional, on the ground floor of Curves women’s gym. This is primarily a fancy seafood restaurant, but lately it’s been advertising a Tex-Mex menu, which turns out to consist of nachos ($7.49) and fajitas (shrimp $9 and beef $10, not including tax and service).
We started out at a table for two, but our waiter asked us to move to a four-top, because all the food wouldn’t fit on the smaller table. After a bowl of popcorn, the side dishes arrived in fajita cups: black beans, Spanish rice, salad, guacamole, ají de la casa, sour cream, and four corn tortillas each. Then came the fajitas. Both the beef and shrimp versions were abundant, with plentiful peppers and onions, and positively steaming on the traditional oval cast-iron pans with wooden bases.
These fajitas aren’t a bargain by any stretch, especially for lunch; the bill for the two specials comes to $23. But if you have an urge for Tex-Mex fajitas, Puerto Grill is the only place in town to alleviate it.
Finally, the new kid on the burrito block is California Burrito Company, located in the food court at the Mall del Rio. CDC was founded by three University of Indian graduates in 2006 in Buenos Aires, where it proved to be an immediate sensation; the franchiser now has 15 locations in six countries in Latin America; the one in the big mall opened in late October.
This is as close as you’ll come in Cuenca to Qdoba (which opened in 1995 in Denver and now has more than 500 locations coast to coast in the States) and Chipotle (which also opened in Denver, in 1993, and now has 1,100 locations in 39 states). Like Qdoba and Chipotle, the burrito ingredients are all lined up along the front counter in steam trays; you order your food as the server goes down the line, adding pinto or black beans and rice; chicken, beef, shredded beef, or pork; cheese and salsa; and lettuce, peppers, carrots, celery, and guacamole.
The standard burritos are folded into giant tortillas, about the size of an old vinyl LP, and weigh about a pound; you won’t be hungry when you finish one. The tacos, quesadillas, and salads use the same ingredients.
The menu is limited: various combinations of burritos (small, medium, and standard), tacos, and salads; some come with drinks, salsa, and melted cheese (from $4 to $6). There are also two burrito specials; the Clásico is a burrito and soda ($5.95) and the Surfer is a burrito, chips and guacamole, and a soda ($7.75).
The noise level at the food court can be ferocious and the ambience is definitely mallish. But for a big California-style (or is it Denver?) belly-bomb burrito, California Burrito Company is, so far, your only choice in Cuenca.
Credit: Re-posted from the Miami Herald Internation Edition, Nov. 14