By Robert Bradley
Among my first memories of Cuenca, and one of the most satisfying, was my introduction to almuerzo, the traditional fixed-menu mid-day meal.
Back in Portland, Oregon, I was accustomed to grabbing a sandwich, or worse, a mystery meat burger, and be done with it. Not so here. Almuerzo — which simply means lunch in Spanish — is a main course preceded by a serving of soup followed by a two-bite dessert, sometimes referred to as lengua de gato, or cat’s tongue.
Almuerzo is a tradition devoted to taking the time to relax and nourish oneself. Afterward, a few lucky diners are able to take a short siesta before returning to work, but everyone returns fortified and ready to complete the day.
Fortunately, a few local establishments are taking almuerzo to a higher level. Expanded menu selections are a major improvement, but it is the added attention to providing a truly enjoyable repast that is setting the better restaurants apart.
Leading the pack is El Mesón Español on Presidente Borrero between Sucre and Presidente Cordova.
El Mesón, featuring a combination of the Spanish and Ecuadorian cuisine, opened in September 2013 on Benigno Malo at Juan Jaramillo, the project of a Cuenca native and his Spanish son-in-law. When their success required a larger venue in 2017, they moved to the dining room of the nearby Hotel Principe, and then, two-years later, they moved again to their present location in heart of Cuenca’s banking center. Faithful customers followed them on both moves.
Most Cuenca almuerzos begin with the soup of the day. The chef of Mesón, however, offers two soups and goes a step further with the choice of a green salad. Both the soups and salads change daily and, on Friday, one of the choices is usually ceviche. There is also a choice of drinks, either chilled tea or fruit punch. And then there’s the standard bread basket accompanied by a bowl of aji.
The three main course selections change daily, from lasgna to burritos to spinach empanadas to chicken, beef, goat and pork options. There are also the occasional Ecuadorian comida tipica favorites, churrasco and guatita.
Almuerzo at El Mesón is $3.50 but they offer a 27-meal discount card for $80, which works out to about $3 a meal.
If you’re looking for a gringo meet-and-greet, El Mesón is not your place. On a recent visit, I only saw two non-Ecuadorians among the 100-plus diners. It’s worth noting that if you come for lunch, timing is important. The restaurant’s 40 tables are usually packed between about 1:15 and 2:15 most days. If you don’t want to wait, come early or come late.
Although the crowds come for lunch — El Mesón serves 1,200 of them during a five-day work week — the restaurant is also open for dinner. Mote pata and chaulafan are always a local favorite and the rotating selection of fine Spanish cuisine, masterfully prepared, keeps guests returning again and again. Prominently featured offerings include several regional renditions of paella de mariscos ($12.25), a langostinos al ajillo ($15.90) and the popular pollo a la Espanola ($10.50).
Whether you come for lunch or dinner, you’ll appreciate El Mesón’s venue. The restaurant occupies two courtyard dining rooms in a recently renovated historic house.
One more note: El Mesón Español hosts an artisanal feria twice monthly on Saturdays where a wide selection of homemade foods, garnishes, brews and crafts are available from local vendors. Showing up is a wonderful way to introduce yourself to dinners prepared by some of Cuenca’s finest cooks. In addition, the restaurant hosts flamenco performances three or four nights a year.
El Mesón Español, Presidente Barrero 7-55; Hours: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday, 8 a.m to 10 p.m Tuesday – Saturday, Closed on Sunday; Phone; 096 906 2808; Facebook.