Only a few restaurants in Quito still serve cuy (roasted guinea pig) anymore, and it has become an exotic food. Although still common in remote village cuisines, even in urban Ecuador the sides would include potatoes, corn and grains in a variety of forms. These traditional foods grace entrees from pernil (roast pig) to chicken breast stuffed with giant shrimp.
Giant shrimp do not belong in the central Andes of Ecuador, but they do on the long Pacific coast. Modern transportation provides the means today to easily market foods within geographic regions. In the past this was often accomplished through conquest.
Quinoa, potatoes and corn are but three of a copious number of food stuffs indigenous to the Central Andes. Spanish conquest in the 16th century spread both these and many other agricultural products worldwide and introduced pigs and beef to South America. Today highways allow Ecuador’s Amazon River and Pacific Ocean fish and seafood to be served fresh in Quito at 9,000 feet elevation.
With a growing middle class, expat population and rising tourism, small cafes, trendy restaurants and street vendors thrive. The following seven restaurants have firmly based their menus on traditional Andean cuisine yet take a liberal hand in fusing ingredients from Ecuador’s larder.
Los Milagros Restaurant, Centro Historico Quito
The historic early 17th century La Capilla del Senor de los Milagros is an unlikely entrance to dining in the oldest neighborhood in Quito’s historic center, Loma Grande. The church is a protected national monument painted with images and murals covering walls and ceiling. The courtyard and dependencies of the church are the Los Milagros Restaurant.
Corn tortillas are ancient Andean but Los Milagros topped mini ones with rose petal marmalade – Ecuador is the world’s third largest exporter of fresh roses. Executive Chef Carlos Fuentes lit the evening sky when presenting flaming Pacific black clams set on a bed of rock salt. All produce comes from their organic farm, and fresh trout is as indigenous to the Andes as corn. It was napped with a flavorful sauce accented by capers and bacon. Every Friday Los Milagros hosts a folkloric evening with dinner.
San Ignacio Restaurant, City Museum of Quito, Centro Historico
In the UNESCO World Heritage site of Quito Centro Historico (Old City) La Hospital San Juan de Dios provided medical care for over four centuries. Renovated into the City Museum of Quito, it tells the origins and evolution of the Ecuadorian capital through stories, legends, traditions, taste, clothes and even holidays from pre-Inca days. San Ignacio Restaurant is tucked into the modern glass entrance of the museum.
Since Quito was a Spanish Andean city built on the ruins of previous indigenous kingdoms, it was appropriate to have pernil (roast pig) thinly sliced on a crusty roll considering the pig accompanied the conquistadors. A crisp fresh salad with crab was artfully arranged.
Hotel Plaza Grande, Centro Historico Quito
A palatial 17th century mansion is today the 17-suite Hotel Plaza Grande. It has three dining options and a sense of humor. Live opera music compliments the menu in the elegant La Belle Epoque room while fine views of Plaza Grande and Carondelet Palace are to be had equally from Café Plaza Grande. Being steeped in history within a 17th century palace, the kitchen adds drama to its signature dessert.
Purple robed and hooded “priests of the Inquisition” bring bowls of freshly made fruit sorbets from the kitchen. Each bowl sits in a slightly larger bowl of dry ice and the swirling cold clouds of nitrogen add to the theatrical touch. Sous Chef Marco Gaibor created a refreshing seafood ceviche and a savory corvina fillet napped with baby shrimp sauce.
Hotel El Patio Andaluz, Centro Historico Quito
Just off Plaza Grande the imposing late 16th century mansion, now boutique hotel El Patio Andaluz, entertains dining guests in the quiet and expansive enclosed interior courtyard. Delectable whole grain rolls and a selection of flavored butters start the meal along with Ecuador’s national dish, Locro de Papa, the ancient and evolving Andean potato soup. Thick fillets of trout napped with tarragon sauce were served over a bed of creamy whipped potatoes. On another occasion grilled pork cutlets were paired with steamed potatoes, grilled asparagus and tomato, a very English dish in a relaxing colonial setting.
El Pobre Diablo Jazz Bar and Restaurant, La Mariscal, Quito
In a quieter corner of the hip La Mariscal neighborhood in Quito’s New City, El Pobre Diablo Jazz Bar and Restaurant has been an institution for independent sound for over 25 years. It’s subdued lighting, music posters, small stage and simple candle lit wooden tables set a classic mood. El Pobre Diablo is known for its Canelazo, a warm spiced cinnamon cocktail made with sugar cane spirits and naranjilla juice that’s meant to be savored on chilly mountain evenings.
Beef cattle were Spanish imports raised mostly on large haciendas. But chickens had arrived some centuries earlier from the Pacific islands. El Pobre Diablo’s grilled lomo (lean beef fillet) was characteristic of Ecuador’s taste for simply seasoned and prepared meats served with aji criollo (hot sauce) on the side.
Opera Restaurant, Hotel Dann Carlton, New City, Quito
The chef at the Hotel Dann Carlton’s sleek Opera Restaurant married chicken and the sea. A boneless breast of chicken encased a giant shrimp. A subtle tarragon hollandaise sauce complemented both.
Imagination continued with a chopped salad bound in a circle by a long thin slice of lightly fried plantain and rice well seasoned with earthy mushrooms topped with asparagus spears and thin strips of crispy fried onion. This attention to detail extended to the presentation of savory empanadas in traditional covered clay pots. The aroma of beef, white corn, chicken and herbs is released as the lid is lifted.
Hacienda Pinsaqui, Otavalo, Ecuador
An hour and a half north of Quito on the recently improved Pan-American Highway Hacienda Pinsaqui has been part of Ecuador’s history for 300 years. From being the center of world renowned fabrics to hosting Simon Bolivar, Hacienda Pinsaqui continues a vibrant life as a 30 suite hotel and gourmet restaurant. Maintained in impeccable condition, the historic buildings are surrounded by lush grounds and gardens.
The menu reflected the best of classic Andean cuisine. Bowls of creamy Locro de Papa were paired with corn nuts and popcorn. Seco de Chivo (braised goat stew) grilled corvine fillet and shrimp in a light herbed cream sauce were all paired with rice, steamed vegetables tostones (fried plantains).
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