DINING WITH DEKEEl Nuevo Paraiso almuerzo vegetariano could be the least expensive restaurant in Cuenca, Ecuador, or the world

Mar 27, 2011

I've never seen anything like it. At least not without a coupon or a comp or a cook in my own kitchen. El Nuevo Paraiso comes about as close as you can get to a free lunch.

 

I met Jim Rathjen there who, chatting (or more like shouting over the max-volume TV and the blare of the blender at the ice cream bar) over lunch, told me a hell of a tale. This is one of the joys of Cuenca: hearing so many colorful stories from expats.

While Jim talked, I ate. 

I'd wanted to try everything and I couldn't decide on what — until it occurred to me that with every dish priced at $1.70, I could order the whole menu and get out of there for less than twenty bucks.  

 

El Nuevo Paraiso has a dozen dishes, served daily till 3 p.m.: chaulafán, guatitas, spaghetti, cazuela, ceviche, pizza, and a few with names like combo, especial, deliciosa, and primavera. All vegetarian and all, as I say, $1.70.

They also serve a dozen different kinds of ice cream, including splits and sundaes, in bowls, tulip and parfait glasses, pineapples, and the like. A simple helado con crema (ice cream and whipped cream) is $1; the banana split is the most expensive at $1.60. 

Jim got the ceviche, a bowl of cold tomato-lime soup full of onions, corn, tomatoes, mushrooms, peas, and bits of carne de soya (cut from thick soy patties). Though it wasn't a ridiculous amount of food, the ceviche was the tastiest of what we sampled and it's the first thing I've eaten here that I've been inspired to try at home — cold, fresh, and mostly raw.

 

A small dish of what Jim called beer nuts was served with the ceviche. This is a popular snack in Ecuador and Peru called cancha. It's made with a type of large-kerneled corn called maíz chulpe. The corn is dried, toasted and puffed in a hot skillet until brown, sprinkled with a little salt, and served with lime. It's a perfect complement to ceviche — or beer.

   

 I got the combo, with a big salad (the orange stuff in the middle is a garlic dressing) …

 

and a fat soy pattie on a bun …

 

… and a glass of fresh orange juice — all one meal.

I also ordered a plate of chaulafán that could easily feed three people. 

 

El Nuevo Paraiso is a big place. The front room has a half-dozen tables, the ice cream bar, the cashier's perch with an actual cash register (a sign of prosperity), and a deli case. Then there's the courtyard area with another ten tables. The front room filled up, with the overflow spilling into the courtyard, while we ate, but you’ve never seen food come out of a kitchen so fast. We ordered and the waitress disappeared; two minutes later, maybe less, she reappeared, accompanied by a second server, with our food. All five dishes. Plus the juice. And a bottle of water.

Which came to a grand total of $6.30.

Being the sport I am, and appreciating Jim's company, I picked up the tab. After a 50-cent tip to the waitress, I was lighter by $7, but heavier by a container full of chaulafán and two bags containing the cancha and the soy burger topped by the quarter avocado. I'm still plowing through it.

El Nuevo Paraiso is located on Avenida José Peralta near the Stadium. It's open for lunch till 3 p.m., and afterwards for juices, soymilk drinks, and ice cream.

 

 

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