The mid-day repast in Cuenca, typical of Latin America, is a big meal and a big deal. It’s long, starting as early as 11:00 and continuing till as late as 4:00, and many shops, stores, offices, and museums close between 1:00 and 3:00 for the leisurely lunch. And you can dine out in a range of restaurants, from no-name $1 almuerzos to $4.50 especiales del dia in bars and upper-crust eateries.
Wunderbar, located off the Escalinata, the wide 100-step staircase that climbs from the Tomebamba River across from Parque de Madre up to Calle Larga at Hermano Miguel, is known for its $4.50 especial.
Run by the same folks who operate Café Austria, it has a distinct German rathskeller look and vibe. You enter a leafy courtyard off the Escalinata, wind down a stone staircase, then step into the foyer. To the left are the bright dining areas, to the right is the bar, and upstairs Wunderbar takes on a distinct subterranean ambience: heavy-beamed ceilings, rock walls, and a couple back rooms, one with a pool table ($3.60 an hour).
You can drink at the bar (the happy hour runs all afternoon); play chess, cards, or pool; grab a book from the built-in case; read the Miami Herald; or just listen to the good selection of North American music.
And you caballeros, be sure to check out the men’s room — spotless, with toilet seat and tissue, paper towels, cool posters, but a throne that’s at most six inches from the facing wall. It’s so close that it’s fun, in a perverse way, to see if you can actually sit all the way down without your knees jamming you up. Try it — if only to make you appreciate, forevermore, the spaciousness and comfort of airline seats.
The menu is posted on a whiteboard at the gate. It changes daily, always some combination of soup and fruit juice, entrée (trout, chicken, lasagna, beef or pork, and the like), salad, and dessert.
The day we tried it, they were dishing up vegetable soup with four slices of garlic bread, three scoops of mashed potatoes, sliced avocado, greens, and what can only be called a “ham chop” — it looked and tasted like a ham steak, though with a little bone-in, which they called chuleta de cerdo (pork chop). It also came with fresh lemonade and a bowl of fruit for dessert.
Ultimately, our meal was emblematic of the Ecuadorian experience. It took about a half-hour after ordering to be served our entrées. But as they say in Espanol: vale la pena. Once it arrived, it was "worth the pain" of the longish wait and the highish price.