[Editor's Note: This is the debut restaurant review from Deke Castleman, who spent a month in Cuenca recently and delved deeply into the dining environment. Deke'll be the new food dude at CuencaHighLife, but we encourage anyone and everyone with a dining tip, restaurant review, market story — any Cuenca or Ecuador food experience worth recounting — to send it in. Just go to AccessEcuador.com and type a message in the message box.]
Goda, on Gran Colombia just east of Luis Cordero, is the restaurant attached to the six-story El Dorado, one of a handful of business hotels in the heart of downtown Cuenca.
Like most Cuenca restaurants, Goda seats you in wooden chairs, but these aren’t so severely straight-backed as usual and you perch on plush cushions that only the best eateries provide. It has marble floors and the picture windows are all that separate the restaurant from the sidewalk; without the glass, passersby could reach out and help themselves to one of your French fries. A tiny six-seat service bar is situated up against the back wall. And three stairs separate a small bakery and upper seating area from the main floor.
The multi-page menu is bilingual, so you know exactly what you’re looking at. The first four pages list cocktails in the $6-$8 range (pricey). Cognac and brandy are $15. Club beer is $2 (50 cents more expensive than water) and comes in a frosted mug; Goda is the only place in Cuenca we saw this (so far).
El Dorado guests have their complimentary breakfast at Goda; it’s also open for lunch. Cuban sandwiches are $4.99 and a bacon-cheeseburger is $6.50 (a lovely expat we met, Elinor Williams, cites it as the best burger in town after Inca’s). Pizza is $6.99; add $1 per topping. Pasta with pesto is $7.75, with seafood $8.50. And they actually serve fondue here for $11.
For salads, Caesars with chicken and shrimp is $6.25, octopus $6.75, and lobster $10.50; lettuce, blue cheese, and nuts is $6.99. We sampled the Greek salad ($6.75); we found the feta to be a lot creamier than crumbly and not quite as tart as, say, the Bulgarian variety, but the salad dressing was Greek to perfection. Soups include seafood and lobster bisque ($6), Creole chicken, French onion, locro de papas ($5), and chicken vegetable ($4.75).
As for entrées, churrasco is $7.75. This is a national dish that comes with a scoop of rice, French fries, sliced patacones (a plantain preparation), a little salad, half an avocado, and a fried egg atop of a slice of flank steak. You often see half-churrascos, especially on fast-food menus, for $2.50 to $3.75 or so. Half is plenty for all but rugby players and lumberjacks.
Climbing up the menu price ladder, for $8.50, you can get filet mignon with sautéed shrimp, sautéed steak with mushroom sauce, or pepper steak with risotto. For $9: paella or chateaubriand, corvina (Spanish for whitefish), and salmon. $13: picudo (swordfish), or atun (tuna) pesto. The most expensive item with a listed price is lamb chops with mint sauce ($15); Ecuadorian lobster thermidor is available at market price.
The meal starts with crackers and a spicy tomato salsa, way more upscale than the usual picante sauce, known as ají, you find on almost all Andean restaurant tables.
I ordered cerdo with llapingachos ($7.75). I rarely order pork in the U.S., but like the chicken in Ecuadorian restaurants that actually tastes like chicken (instead of McNuggets), pork here is delicious. Besides, it’s the other white meat. And this dish came with four fat medallions of creole-spiced grilled cerdo. Also, I’m a sucker for llapingachos, a cheesy Andean potato pancake. My dinner also came with motepillo, a big pile of Ecuadorian hominy, made from white-corn kernels and scrambled eggs, along with two fat patacones, half an avocado, and lettuce.
Shirl had seco de chivo (also $7.75). Chivo is Spanish for goat. You see seco all over Ecuadorian menus. For a word that translates as “dry,” it’s strange that it means, as far as it can be specified, stew. It comes in various preparations, but you can usually count on stew-size chunks in some sort of sauce. Once in a while, seco de pollo or carne or chivo does come dry. The goat in Shirl’s dish was tender, but the tomato-based sauce, though delicious, overpowered any goat taste. Maybe next time we’ll order the chivo and hold the seco. But this dinner consisted of a generous ladle of goat stew, two patacones, a big scoop of rice, a half-avocado, and grated carrots.
For dessert, you can order passion-fruit mousse ($3.75), banana flambé or crepes suzette ($3.99). Shirlee tried the coconut-caramel flan ($3.75), which was more like pie, the coconut accounting for the crust; it all sits in a very sweet caramel sauce. And like many fine restaurants around Ecuador, the bill comes on a dish with green “menta glacial,” after-dinner mints.
The prices don’t include VAT or service charge. With the Greek salad, a beer, two entrées, and the flan, the tab came to $28, but with the impuesta y servicio tacked on, we paid nearly $35. The tax and tip are real killers. It was the most we spent on a dinner in our six total weeks in Ecuador. And though a similar fancy meal in Reno would cost at least twice that, it definitely felt expensive in a country where $35 buys 28 pineapples, 17 almuerzos, 7 six-slice pizzas, or four dinners at many other nice restaurants. But it was well worth it for a one-time splurge in our month in Cuenca. And we’ll go da Goda again.
Stay tuned for further coverage of the Cuenca food scene, including the shocking truth about pequeña pizzas, how restaurants can survive on serving only one or two meals a night, the deep cultural issue of tipping, the Shirlee and Deke method for sampling two almuerzos a day, local organic produce, the Spanish for toppings at the ice-cream shops, sugarcane alcohol, whole pigs on spits, and more. Also visit AccessEcuador.com.