By Stephen Vargha
Sofia Palacios’ mother wanted her to be a doctor like her sister. Or even a paramedic like her other sister. Instead, Sofia went into the restaurant business. At first, that was a disappointment for Mom.
Today, her mother is very proud of what her daughter has done with Sofy Glocal Cuisine. According to the travel guidance company, TripAdvisor, Sofia’s restaurant is one of the dozen best restaurants in the city.
The road to such a prestigious recognition was a rather long one for Sofia.
She comes from a big family. Her grandfather lived most of his life in Loja and had 40 children (That is not a typo). “Maybe because my grandfather had so many children, the mayor of Cuenca is my uncle,” said Sofia with a laugh. She doesn’t know, but they do share the same Sephardic name.
Sofia grew up with her two sisters and two brothers near the Colombia border, in Carchi Province. As a young woman, she decided to experience the world. and spent six months in the Middle East, four of them in Israel.
“I traveled the whole length of Israel, from the north to Eilat,” said Sofia. That experience gave her the first taste of international food. She came back to Ecuador loving Falafel (a popular Middle Eastern fast food made of chickpeas, fresh herbs, and spices) and Shawarma (marinated chicken, layered on a vertical rotisserie or spit, slowly roasted for days).
With a love of food, Sofia went to a culinary arts school in Quito. It was very expensive as it was a private school.
Lucky for her, University of Cuenca was about to open a culinary school. In 2009, she applied and took a test for one of the 40 spots at the school. The test is comparable to the SAT in the United States. There were 490 applicants, and Sofia became part of the first class at the public university.
It took Sofia six years to graduate as she was a part-time student, trying to make ends meet. During that time, she worked at Di Bacco, an Italian restaurant that catered towards Americans and at one time hosted a popular “Gringo Night” gathering.
“I got to know the American community while at Di Bacco,” said Sofia. “Working for a short time at Local 5 helped, too.” Local 5 was an American restaurant, owned by the owner of Inca Bar and Lounge.
On top of that, Sofia began making desserts and quiches. “I made them at my home,” said Sofia. “It was my money to survive.”
Sofia became a good friend with an American woman, and in 2016, with her friend’s help, she opened Sofy’s at Bajada del Padrón on the south side of the historic district. “She is like family,” said Sofia. “My friend is so close to me that I think of her as my second mother.”
Her good friend helped with the desserts. “At first the idea was to open a small bakery. Baking is creative,” said Sofia. “Besides, people were crazy about my desserts and quiches.”
She wasn’t sure that a restaurant was right for her due to it being a very stressful business. But business was good as many of the people going to her new restaurant were Americans who bought her quiches and desserts. TripAdvisor was a big factor, too.
That restaurant did not last long due to disagreements with the landlord. For a few months, Sofia served brunches and special dinners by reservation at her home before finding another place for her restaurant. “That place on Benigno Malo and Juan Jaramillo was a hole in the wall,” said Sofia. “And we made it into a very nice place.”
That location took a big hit due to the October 2019 national protests and riots against austerity measures, including the cancellation of fuel subsidies, by President Lenín Moreno. The Covid-19 pandemic put the nail into the coffin of that location.
During the height of the pandemic, it was one-dollar burgers from her home’s front door. “They were sliders,” said Sofia. She also did special deliveries of her fried chicken and Beef Bourguignon, a French beef stew braised in red wine. As usual, the expats were her biggest customers.
Fortune fell upon Sofia during the pandemic. “One day I was having coffee here at Mansión Matilde, in the Casa del Parque, and my friend told me I needed to open a restaurant at this location,” said Sofia. “I agreed with her, so I signed a contract in July 2020 and three months later, we opened Sofy Glocal Cuisine.”
The amount of money it took to get the restaurant up and running was more than she expected. “I was naïve. I thought I could just bring the furniture from my home, but the owners of the building told me my restaurant must be upscale,” said Sofia.
Very comfortable and beautiful wingback chairs became part of the restaurant. A gorgeous large art display of copper pots and pans hangs over the front of her kitchen. The designer of Mansión Matilde suggested partially painting the copper kitchen items blue, and Sofia went with the innovative idea.
George Bernard Shaw said, “There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” And Sofia’s customers really love some of her dishes. Shrimp and Grits is very popular with the expats. It is a spin on the Charleston, South Carolina classic, with slices of fried yellow plantain that offset the subtle kick of cayenne in the grits.
Lamb Carré is very popular with the Ecuadorians. “Cuencanos love it! Ecuadorians love lamb,” said Sofia. “Unfortunately, the bad part is Ecuadorians like their lamb well-done. They always ask for it that way.”
Instead, Sofia serves them her juicy rack of lamb. Her Ecuadorian customers were not used to juicy meats with bold flavors, but they all tell her how much they like it.
A newer item on the menu is Brussels sprouts. They are blanched before being sautéed with bacon in a frying pan. Sofia then adds pumpkin seeds for some added crunch and tops it with fresh Parmesan cheese.
“It has become so popular that I need to be buying more Brussels sprouts,” Sofia chuckles.
The clientele at the restaurant covers all demographics. “It’s not only young people coming here, who are more receptive to new flavors and dishes,” said Sofia. “It’s very common to see young adults bringing their parents here for a meal.”
About a third of her customers are Ecuadorian, with another third being expats. Because of the restaurant’s location being across from Parque Calderón, the other third are tourists. “I want people to taste my food and this place is in an area that people visit,” said Sofia.
Sofy Glocal Cuisine is pet-friendly. “People are more respectful of animals here than in Quito. The expats have help make Cuenca very pet-friendly,” said Sofia. “And I am so happy to be in this house that is pet-friendly.”
Location, excellent food, allowing dogs at Sofy Glocal Cuisine have made the restaurant a place many want to go to, and others to come back for more. It is why Cuencanos are now making this restaurant a place for their special events.
Sofy Glocal Cuisine, Casa del Parque, esq. Simón Bolívar 7-79 y Luis Cordero, Cuenca, 096-420-4321, Facebook
Stephen Vargha’s new book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats.