La Vina, serving good hearty Italian for a decade at the corner of Luis Cordero and Juan Jaramillo, is a favorite of gringos. Shirlee and I were there on a Friday night when four parties at the five tables in the front room were Americans. La Vina’s menu is monolingual, though it’s more in Italian than Spanish, with words like brushetta ($2.50), antipasto ($5), spaghetti (nine different types, including pesto, puttanesca, and salmon; $5-$6.30), ravioli ($6), fettucine ($6-$7.50), risotto ($8), even gnochi de la casa ($6.40). But you’ll also bump into al ajo (with garlic), melanzane (eggplant; the parmigiana for $6.50 is excellent), and albahaca (basil). Bring your dictionary; it’s fun to look up the Spanish for Italian. Also excellent are the vegetarian lasagna ($6), tiramisu ($2.30), and La Vina’s pizza, which comes on a round cutting board; pequeñas range from $4.50 for queso to $5.50 for anchoas (anchovies), while grandes are $9-$10.
The Kookaburra Cafe, in a renovated 100-year-old house on Calle Largo just west of Benigno Malo, is owned by a young couple from Queensland, Chris and Jenny Bluefields. Ecuadorians love the name, which loosely translates into “lazy ass in the kitchen,” but is a bird in Australian. It’s a highly congenial haunt, with a warm feel, high ceilings, and two courtyards. There’s almost always a table or two of expats visiting, drinking coffee or the signature vegetable juice, eating breakfast or lunch, or reading from a selection of English and Spanish newspapers and magazines; the menu, too, is bilingual. Breakfasts, which include scrambled eggs with tomato and onion, omelets with herbs, stewed apples and peaches (all $1.60), and bacon and eggs ($2.15), start at 7 a.m. For lunch, try vegetarian soup or vegemite ($2) and 10 different sandwiches featuring some combination of avocado, bacon, peppers, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onions ($2.50-$4.20). The Kookaburra closes at 4 p.m. and all day Tuesday and Wednesday.
The last haunt for English-speakers — and the latest; it opened in April 2010 — is California Kitchen. This is a family restaurant in every sense of the word. It's owned and manned by the Evans family: George and Carol and their thirty-something kids Jim (who cooks) and Susie (who waits tables). It’s a big place, with 16 tables under a massive chandelier and a pyramidal skylight in the courtyard of a three-story restored mansion at the corner of Gaspar Sangurima and Presidente Borrero. With thick comfy cushions tied to the usual straightback wooden chairs and cloth napkins, this is the most upscale lunch in town. Still, the prices aren’t anywhere near as high as in kitchens in California: $3.50 for a huge bowl of chicken soup; $3.25 to $3.95 for other soups and salads ranging; burgers and sandwiches with potato salad or the Evans's special broccoli slaw for $4.25-$5.25; and American-style desserts (much sweeter than local fare). The California Kitchen — “El Sabor de California in Cuenca” -– is open Tuesday-Saturday 8 a.m.-4 p.m. and Thursday-Saturday 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The Evanses also offer weekend and holiday specials.
Captions, top: The Kookaburra's front window looks out onto Calle Larga; middle: the colorful cash-register area of the Kookaburra; bottom: the classy interior of the California Kitchen.