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The Cuenca almuerzo: It’s what’s for lunch — with an Arabic twist

By Deke Castleman and Sylvan Hardy

The Spanish verb “to eat lunch” is almorzar. The noun is almuerzo (ahl-MWAIR-so). You notice the Arabic influence of the term in “al”; in addition, any Spanish spelling with a “z” in it is also a hand-me-down from the Arabic languages. Almuerzo has both.

The traditional almuerzo, also known as menu del día, is a fixed-price fixed-menu lunch, served from around 12:30 p.m. till around 3 p.m. in Ecuador. Traditionally, the almuerzo is the big meal of the day.

Typical Ecuadorian almuerzo.
Typical Ecuadorian almuerzo.

Most offices and many stores close for two hours in the afternoon, the Latin custom of a leisurely lunch. In Cuenca, you won’t find too many people working through their lunch breaks, wolfing down fast food between customers or keystrokes. Here, there’s plenty of time to sit, eat slowly and breathe, relax, enjoy the other people at the table, digest, and get back to work without having a stroke. Many even go home to have lunch with their spouses and children.

As such, breakfast (desayuno) is usually light, with an egg or two, a roll or croissant with butter (mantequilla) or jam (mermelada), perhaps a couple slices of queso fresco (local medium-soft cheese), fresh fruit juice, and tea or coffee.

Supper (merienda) is also light, basically a snack, often a sandwich, although European and North American influences are adding calories to Ecuadorian dining habits.

Dinner (cena) is generally more formal and can be a big social meal, usually on weekends. It rarely starts earlier than 8:30 p.m. and sometimes continues into the wee hours.

chl lunch
A Cuban almuerzo.

Back to the almuerzo . . . there are endless variations on the theme. Many start with a bowl of popcorn, which goes great slathered in ají (the local salsa, make fresh daily from recipes that vary slightly family to family); others are launched with a bowl of mote (big kernels of white corn). Then comes six or eight ounces of fruit juice, usually fresh but sometimes more like coolaide, followed by a bowl of soup, usually potato-based, but sometimes lentil, quinoa, or corn (you might also see vegetable, chicken, or beef, though usually at the more expensive almuerzos). Some restaurants offer a choice of soup or salad.

The main plato (plate or entree) is some combination of rice, fries, avocado, patacones (fried slices of plantain), maybe a small salad or steamed vegetables, and a piece of beef or a chicken part, often in sauce.

Seco de pollo or carne (meaning that it’s served with rice) is also common.

Most almuerzos cost $2.50-$3.50. Upscale lunches can rise to $4 and even $6.50; these definitely cater to a gringo and upper-class  Ecuadorian clientele.

Actually, for some reason, you’ll see few expats  at the best-value alumuerzos; the exception is at Don Colon’s restaurant, across from Parque Calderon, which serves an excellent one for $4.75.

Almuerzo time at Meson Español.

Working-class Cuencanos, along with students and retirees, frequent the $1.50-$2.50 almuerzos. Many of these restaurants have neither names nor signs and even fewer have menus, though some have chalkboards out front that list the  fare  of the day. You walk into  the storefront of someone’s El Centro house, sit  down, and the  food starts arriving, often placed in front of you by a coming-of-ager in the family; you’ll see servers as young as 12, especially during school vacations.

At these almuerzos típicos, “counting carbs” often means adding up all the different kinds of carbohydrates put in front of you on the plate, rather than how many calories of carbs you consume. For example, an almuerzo at a nameless signless menuless front-room restaurant near Feria Libre (the largest mercado in Cuenca) comes with five. This carbfest could fuel a marathon: soup with both potato and mote, then a lunch plate with rice, a fat patacone (fried plantain), and a tuna-casserole thing, with bits of tuna on mounds of spaghetti smothered in sauce.

For those new to the almuerzo tradition, here are some popular Cuenca options:

El Meson Español, Luis Cordero at Juan Jaramillo; Moliendo Cafe, Honorato Vasquez at Hermano Miguel; Terra, Benigno Malo at Jaramillo; and El Rincon, Presidente Cordova at Luis Cordero; Don Colon, Sucre at Benigno Malo; For an upscale almuerzo, try Cafe Austria, Hermano Miguel at Simon Bolivar.

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Updated and reposted from 2016.

15 thoughts on “The Cuenca almuerzo: It’s what’s for lunch — with an Arabic twist

    1. Agree, and it’s terrible to boot. Tomorrow, let’s head over to Mogro’s sister-in-law’s place. I hear she makes some awesome almuerzos.

      Best value I’ve found is at Moliendo Cafe, but now that Castleman has touted that place, you can’t get near it for lunch. Actually, It’s been that way for quite a while. I hear that Julius eats there when he’s not at Noe.

    2. If a “gringofied almuerzo” means that you do not leave hungry and the food is actually a little bit more creative and tasty, then count me in for Don Colon. Have enjoyed Colon many times and always had a good meal and pleasant service!

      1. Well Martin, you have no knowledge of what we ordered and the cost. Even if it had been only $4.75 the service was terrible and the food was not very satisfactory. We have eaten in many different tiny to larger food establishments here in Cuenca. So, you just continue to visit your personal favorite places but my comments are for those who are looking for something more.

  1. Well eating at Don colon is a bad experience so don’t get introduced to cuenca the food through this resturant

  2. This custom is probably a hold-over from Spain, where it is so hot that they close their shops from noon to four and they work into the evening. This is hardly necessary here. Better to get work done (half an hour lunch), then go home and enjoy the evening.

  3. My experience with Don Colon’s is good…we all have different tastes…I don’t eat almuerzos…don’t eat beans, rice or drink juice…so it’s just not worth it to me.

  4. Some stuff doesn’t change. Moliendo is still great, Don Colon’s is still terrible. Still looking for Jonathan’s sister-in-law’s place. He won’t give up the location.

  5. For a change of pace in El Centro, try Cilantro on Juan Jaramillo y Benigno Malo. We’ve been there several times, haven’t had a bad almuerzo yet.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I used to eat there quite a bit and the owner was the nicest guy you’d ever care too meet. He’d prepare anything you wanted, any time of the day. I like pancakes and he’d prepare them for me for dinner when I’d ask. I haven’t been there in ages. I wonder if it is still owned by the same guy.

      1. Don’t know if it’s the same guy but the person who collects money fits your description to a tee.

  6. The times that I’ve dined at Don Colon’s have been mixed…as my first almuerzo there was not very good…but since then the food quality has been better. As a former owner of a sports bar in the U.S. one
    thing is certain…..it’s who is manning the kitchen that counts. Kitchen
    employees come and go=inconsistent food preparation. It’s like the saying…..”It goes with the turf”. So today=good food ! Next week=no

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