By Christopher Lux
El Nopal Mexican restaurant sits just off Paucarbamba behind El Vergel, surrounded by houses and a few seafood restaurants. This small family-owned restaurant is serving up traditional Mexican cuisine inspired by the home they left more than a decade ago.
A large Mexican flag and iconic lucha libre masks hang from the ceiling. Our Lady of Guadalupe graces the wall. A few wooden tables and chairs provide a comfortable family feeling and patrons greet one another and offer a “Buen provecho.” Chips are accompanied by black beans, guacamole, and chipotle sauce served in clay dishes.
“All of the food is traditional,” says Enrique, the owner. “It’s my dad’s cuisine. It’s what he grew up with in Mexico City.” The one exception, though, are the burritos. “People in Cuenca want burritos, so we put them on the menu. It’s more Tex-Mex.” While Burritos have a Mexican history, the modern burrito probably has its roots in the Mexican-American communities in the United States, according to Enrique.
Enrique moved to Ecuador from Mexico City when he was a teenager, along with his mom, dad, and two brothers. Although his mom is Cuencana, she met Enrique’s father in Mexico City. The couple raised their children there but moved to Cuenca when mom decided she wanted to be closer to her family.
In Cuenca, the family struggled for several years. “It was a difficult experience to establish ourselves in Ecuador,” Enrique recalls. “We didn’t know anyone here except my mom’s family. We had no jobs or place to live. At the beginning, we stayed at my mom’s family’s house. Eventually, we rented our own place on Loja Avenue.”
Enrique’s dad left behind a successful career in Mexico. “He became one of the best sellers in Xerox-México, and he won several awards as branch manager at a metropolitan level.” In Ecuador, the family hoped to open a copy shop.
“We arrived in late 1999, during one of the worst political, economic and social crisis in the history of Ecuador,” says Enrique. “The president took drastic measures and dollarized the Ecuadorian economy. People lost their savings when the banks closed. We survived with the money we brought from Mexico. But we were running out of money and we almost regretted we had come to Ecuador.”
Then, they realized there was a niche to be filled in Cuenca: Mexican restaurants. “We knew that Mexicans are really appreciated in Ecuador. In 2003, we opened a Mexican bar and restaurant on Av. Solano and called it El Nopal. El Nopal is the leaf of the tuna fruit and it is a very popular vegetable in Mexico and it is part of the shield of our Mexican flag.”
Despite the business and customer skills of Enrique’s father and the contribution of Enrique and his brothers, the restaurant closed after 12 years. “We did not do very well in that location. One reason is that we we weren’t open the whole day like we are now,” Enrique says.
One year ago, Enrique decided to reopen a restaurant in the Paucarbamba neighborhood, a few blocks from El Centro. Today, El Nopal has longer hours and new cooks: his dad and brother, Bernardo. Enrique and his other brother, Wellington, work the front making drinks and taking customers’ orders.
“The food is better here, too,” Enrique says. “All of our dishes are bigger than they were when we had a hired cook. Now my dad makes the food. He’s more generous. Also, after 12 years of learning and experiencing cooking and serving, we have learned from our mistakes.”
Enrique is planning to open another location by next year. “That’s the dream,” he says.
“Every day we work hard to provide the best service with the best flavor, quality, warmth, quantity and lots of love in everything we prepare,” he says.
El Nopal’s menu features traditional Mexican dishes like tortas mexicanas, tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, arracheras, huevos rancheros, sopa de tortilla, and chilaquiles. Enrique’s mom prepares all of the desserts, including lemon pie and cajeta, a creamy Mexican dessert.
Everyone seems to agree that their margaritas are among the best in Cuenca.
If the Spanish menu and traditional dishes are a little intimidating, take comfort knowing that Enrique and Wellington are bilingual and will be happy to tell you about their dishes in English.
El Nopal is open Tuesday through Saturday 1 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday 12:30 p.m. to – 3:30 p.m.. It’s located at Avenida Luis Moreno Mora 1-69 and Avenida Paucarbamba.