Quito visitors can straddle the Equator, inspect pre-Columbian artifacts and fine art at museums, find whopping bargains at artisan markets, ride a cable car into the clouds, offer prayers at some of the most magnificent cathedrals in the Americas – and savor sublime dining.
It’s the gastronomy part that’s making international news.
Journalists and top chefs from throughout the Americas, Spain and Italy gathered in Quito last month to celebrate the city’s culinary ascendance – and sample the goods.
Between meals, we explored the city. But more on that later…
Quito sits on a plateau high in the foothills of the Andes, at 9,350 feet elevation. The chefs we met during our five-day feeding frenzy generally agreed it’s the range of microclimates surrounding Quito that enables the magic they make in their kitchens. They plan their menus around delectable morsels of paiche, a mild freshwater fish native to the Amazon, sea bass and tuna caught off Ecuador’s Pacific coast, succulent pork raised on small farms in the highlands, root vegetables and wild berries native to the Andes, crayfish and seaweed from the Galapagos. Their dishes make the most of cacao beans cultivated in the Ecuadorean cloud forest – rare “Arriba” beans that many agree make the finest flavored chocolate in the world.
Where to start?
There are many reasons why Quito’s Nuema has been named the best restaurant in Ecuador for two years running – but the primary credit belongs to chef/owner Alejandro Chamorro and his wife and co-star Pia Salazar, newly named top pastry chef in Latin America.
The accolades are bestowed by the Academy of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, a highly respected group of 300 leaders in the restaurant industry across Latin America.
Launched in 2014, Nuema, is a blend of the chefs’ three children’s names: Nuria, Emilio and Martín. This summer the restaurant moved into sleek new digs: a contemporary multi-story home that formerly housed the Haitian Embassy in the city’s trendy La Floresta neighborhood. The dining room, kitchen and bar ramble over most of the main and lower levels; upstairs there are contemporary art galleries. Chamorro, who trained at Noma in Copenhagen, one of the top-rated restaurants in the world, calls the place his “lifetime achievement award.”
Nuema is where to go if you believe cooking is an art form – a place where chefs mix and meld profound flavors, aromas, shapes and colors on designer plates, the way Matisse and Monet layered oils on canvas.
“As a child, I always wanted to study art,” said Chamorro. “Cooking is the best way to express art.”
At most restaurants we visited, we surrendered to chefs’ tasting menus. (Prices ranged from about $65 to $95 per person.) Chamorro and Salazar proved to be a dream team. We savored innovative takes on ceviche, a sea bass and guava surprise, corn chowder accessorized with a coastal prawn, grilled paiche served beside a dollop of seasoned cream studded with lemon verbena oil. Even a course centered on cauliflower was bliss – cooked in caramelized cacao leaf.
There were two desserts: a scrumptious foamy mélange of cherimoya, tangerine and toffee – followed by a tasty but mystifying mini-mound of Galapagos seaweed inexplicably dressed with caramelized yeast, coconut butter and garlic sabayon.
Chef/owner Luis Maldonado reigns over Tributo Restaurante, a meat-lover’s paradise.
“My passion since childhood has been meat. I learned everything about it from family friends who owned a butcher shop,’’ said Maldonado, who was raised in Venezuela’s ancestral Basque country.
Five years ago, after studying gastronomy in Venezuela, Maldonado moved to Quito and became a first generation farmer. He explained that he invested in well-priced 8-year-old Holsteins, former milking cows, that he nurtured for at least a year, butchered, then aged. In summer 2021, he opened Tributo so he’d have a place to serve his prized meats. The restaurant specializes in dry and wet-aged beef and pork – and wins raves.
“We are Tributo,” Maldonado said. “We pay tribute to the whole animal. We are the first place in Quito to do this.”
Our tasting menu included squid stuffed with blood pudding, buttery beef bone marrow, beef steak nigiri sushi, smoked beef tongue bruschetta, crisped sweetbreads served with tiny Andean potatoes the size of blueberries – and thick slices of perfectly grilled ribeye.
“Vamos a comer ahora Pola,” Maldonado said, raising his glass to the prime beef he’d just sliced.
We toasted Pola and dug in. Perfection.
“Ecuador has more biodiversity per square kilometer than any place else in the world,” said Urko owner/chef Daniel Maldonado. He makes the most of that diversity – both bio- and cultural.
At Urko, the menu changes four times a year, based on what’s available seasonally and on the ancient Incan concept of “raymis” – the quarterly celebration of the sun’s actual passage through the sky and its impact on everything from agriculture to mood.
“Here we want to learn from everybody,” Maldonado explained. “We integrate producers, artisans and communities in the creative process, always showing respect to the natural cycles of the Earth.
“We do not repeat our menu. When we complete a cycle here, it is done – you will never have that dish again.”
Urko opened in 2015. Last year it moved into its current home – a place that exudes family ambiance. The restaurant seats only about 20 guests, only four nights a week – Tuesdays through Fridays. Other times it’s simply the Maldonado family home. Seating is in an open-air garden – under a tin roof. (Rainy season here runs September through May.) Thick alpaca blankets, draped over the backs of chairs, keep diners comfy on chllly nights.
The exquisite food provides a whole other level of comfort and warmth.
Our “Koya” (September through December) tasting menu started with an explosion of flavors: a fresh Galapagos oyster accented with passionfruit and chives. Then came perfectly roasted pumpkin topped with macadamias and a rose geranium broth. There was paiche from the Amazon, beef from the highlands (on a bed of onion puree topped with crisped kale, mustard seed and pine nuts). We savored watermelon ceviche, fresh mango adorned with lantana flowers and spearmint. Next came two desserts: first a caramelized coconut sorbet with raspberries and chili powder, then a smoky mint ice cream daubed with Andean blueberries. Oh, and the curtain closer was a chocolate tasting – six
Chef Adrian Escardo and business partner Carmen Elena Torres opened Cardo in March 2020, six days before the pandemic closed everything in Quito. They didn’t just survive; today their restaurant is a bustling, delicious success.
Cardo calls itself a “cocina de autor” – a restaurant with “signature cuisine.” It blends old world traditions and family recipes with new world products, concepts and cooking methods. It’s a reflection of chef Escardo’s heritage: His grandparents are French, his mother was raised in Naples, Italy. He grew up in Argentina, where he attended culinary school.
Before sitting for dinner, Escardo gave us a tour of the restaurant’s backyard – where everything from fruits and vegetables to a forest of herbs flourish.
Cardo menu items range from appetizers of traditional French onion soup to creative delights such as burrata with saffron-poached pears – served with crunchy Serrano-style ham, crispy kale and house-made focaccia.
Our tasting menu included a giant freshwater curried prawn from the Amazon served with Andean corn masa wrapped in pockets of Galapagos seaweed. It offered a contemporary take on Quito’s signature hornado (slow roasted pork): We savored every morsel of our sous-vide pancetta served on a creamy bed of hominy with house-made chimichurri, onion/tomato preserve and a crispy golden potato cake. One of the tastiest dishes of our entire week was Escardo’s play on comfort food: grilled pumpkin gnocchi with a confit of artichoke and Andean cheese – resting in a silky bath of sacha inchi (sometimes called the Inca peanut) pesto – garnished naturally with a perfectly roasted baby carrot. Scrumptious.
Aura – Kitchen with Soul
Enrique “Quique” Sempere is a made-to-order TV chef: young, handsome, charismatic, passionate about food – and a damn good cook.
The son of a Quiteno mother and a father from Valencia, Spain, Quique learned his way around kitchens and culinary classrooms in both countries before landing a job as a TV judge on the first season of Master Chef Ecuador. That led to other gigs on the Latin American cooking channel, El Gourmet TV – and an avid fan base spread throughout Latin America and into Europe.
Sempere helmed the Royal Palm Hotel restaurant in the Galapagos and Pacha, a tapas restaurant in Quito, before opening his dream project earlier this year in the buzzing Gonzalez Suarez District. He calls the place Aura – Cocina con Alma (kitchen with soul).
“We are inspired by the gastronomic wealth of our country, its products and flavors, its people, its regions, its culture, its traditions, its creativity,” Sempere said. “It’s the spark that infects us with joy and life.”
Guinea pig is pretty much a national dish in Ecuador. Sempere serves it in deep-fried spring rolls. Our tasting menu also included yellowfin tuna tartare and a hearty traditional dish made with sticky rice, smoked squid and chorizo in a red sauce. Another course offered a trio of arancini stuffed with local cheeses, sweet chutney and achiote, nuzzled atop a pool of lamb stew. For a contemporary plate, the chef stacked caramelized foie gras atop a plantain/cacao butter tortilla he then topped with a thin-as-paper chicharon/peanut/cilantro cracker – all artistically encircled with a slender drizzle of crushed Andean blueberries.
Dessert? It was Quique’s interpretation of cake and ice cream: lime-frosted dark-chocolate bonbons served with white-chocolate/toasted-corn ice cream (it works!) with flourless dark-chocolate biscuit crumbles and cacao nibs.
Family fuels Restaurante San Ignacio in the city’s Centro Historico. Mama Rosia runs the kitchen, putting contemporary spins on traditional recipes handed down by her abuelita, Rosa Viera. Ricardo Sanchez greets guests at the door; son Juan Carlos explains the tasting menu – and in laws do the baking. Housed in a landmark 200-year-old building, the restaurant has been a neighborhood favorite for a dozen years. It wins awards for its food – and its private label wines from Ecuador’s St. Helena province.
The best baker in Quito may be Santiago Cueva, owner/chef at Marcando El Camino. The casual eatery may offer the best house-baked sourdough bread on the planet. Use a fat hunk to sop up the garlicky wonder of the restaurant’s fusion of sweetbreads with tiny button mushrooms.
Don’t mistake Cosas Finas de la Florida for a fast-food joint. This neighborhood institution is where you’ll find some of the best pork dished up in Quito. There’s almost always a line, but it moves quickly. Snag a spot at an outdoor table and pig out.
Still hungry? Wander the historic heart of the city’s old town and you’ll find a variety of vendors. Buy a piping hot plate of chorizo y papas (sausage and potatoes) from women doing the cooking at small sidewalk braziers.
In that same neighborhood, visit a range of candy makers. We found one who roasted peanuts, then coated them in a sugary new shell.
Small neighborhood eateries proliferate in Quito. Locals lovingly call them “huecas.” Most are informal family-run shoestring operations – with no marketing except word of mouth. Ask locals for recommendations. Then, go ahead and ring the sidewalk doorbell, shout an order into the nearby speaker – and a few minutes later your tamales or grilled cassava or fruit-filled drink will be delivered with a smile.
Last but definitely not least, Ecuador is known for producing the world’s finest chocolate, so be sure to do a chocolate tasting – or two or three.
Pacari is a locals’ favorite brand. It’s organic, entirely made in Ecuador, based in Quito and offers tastings to the public. Our experience included small samples of 10 Pacari chocolate varieties – from its award-winning raw organic chocolate to its maracuya label blended with passionfruit. Yum.
There’s plenty to do in Quito:
The city stretches 36 miles north to south, four miles east to west. It’s surrounded by 84 volcanoes (including eight still active). Much of the old city is constructed of volcanic rock and has stood since Spanish conquistadors founded the city in the 16th century on the ruins of an ancient Inca capital. In 1822, Quito won its independence from Spain – and in 1978, it became the first city in the world to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Quito itself – especially its historic old town – is a walkable living museum. Its main square, Plaza Independencia, is flanked by a 16th century cathedral, Ecuador’s Presidential Palace, its Municipal Palace and the Archbishop’s Palace (now a food court). Sit in the square and absorb its history – as you enjoy a scoop of passionfruit sorbet bought from a vendor in the Archbishop’s old digs.
There are dozens of brick and mortar museums in Quito. Among those you shouldn’t miss:
Casa Del Alabado, a pre-Columbian Art Museum. It includes archeological treasures that date back as far as 4500 BC – about the time the wheel was being invented in Mesopotamia. Museum artifacts are exhibited according to theme, rather than date, so that visitors get an understanding of what various regional cultures had in common and how they evolved over the centuries. (https://alabado.org)
Art junkies can get their fix at the Fundación Guayasamin Museum. Oswaldo Guayasamin, Ecuador’s renowned cubist artist and sculptor, literally built this museum before he died in 1999 at age 79. It’s housed in the home he designed and lived in – and includes his extensive collection of pre-Columbian and colonial art, pieces by contemporary artists including Chagall and Picasso, as well as the world’s most complete collection of his own work. Visitors can peek into Guayasamin’s bedroom, linger in the sun-filled gallery where he worked and say a prayer where he’s buried under a pine tree near the house. (www.facebook.com/fundacion.guayasamin)
Go to church
Thanks to its years as a Spanish colony, the city remains home to some of the most spectacular Roman Catholic churches in the Americas. Locals still pray at Santo Domingo Church, founded by Dominicans and Jesuits in 1583.
For pure gawking pleasure, they visit nearby Compania de Jesus, started by Jesuits in 1605. It took 160 years to complete the church; today the interior literally sparkles, covered cupola-to-confessional in 23-karat gold mined from local mountains. Its 200-year-old organ features 1,104 pipes.
Among newer churches: the Basilica of the National Vow, consecrated in 1988. It’s the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas. The coolest part: Instead of gargoyles on its façade, it’s adorned with endemic animals of the Galapagos, such as turtles, blue-footed boobies, monkeys, and armadillos.
Straddle the Equator
Walk the line at Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, the City of the Middle of the World, about 16 miles north of downtown Quito. It’s a touristy attraction with educational exhibits, shops and
restaurants. Note that there’s more than one “equator” line at the park – and that the nearby Intinan Site Museum offers its own line. Purists can view Earth’s real waistline, the 0 latitude spot determined by scientists, not park planners, atop nearby Mt. Catequilla.
Shop till you drop
There are dozens of markets in Quito. For souvenirs, head straight to Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal, a bustling covered warren of vendors who compete to sell locally made arts and crafts. Find everything from textiles and jewelry to shoes, or even a new bag to carry your purchases home in. Prices are competitive – and usually a bargain even for those who don’t bother to haggle.
Mercado Inaquito is the place to go for fresh food – from fruits to local cheeses, seafood and just-butchered meats. Enjoy a snack (or a meal) at its food court.
At Mercado Municipal San Francisco, there’s food – but the big draw is a clutch of healers who offer traditional herbal medicines and treatments handed down by ancestors. The afternoon we visited, we found parents who sought a remedy for their young son’s shyness. In another cubby, a woman from Canada paid $7 for a “body-and-soul energy fix” that required she strip to her underwear, get whacked with herb branches, then soothed with a gentle neck and shoulders oil rub.
Ride sky high
For breathtaking views of the city, ride a TelefériQo gondola from the western edge of Quito up the east side of Pichincha volcano. In less than 20 ear-popping minutes you’ll rise from about 10,000 feet elevation to almost 13,000 feet. We timed our ascent to get a golden sunset view of Quito and to be at the Cruz Loma lookout up top as the city comes to life each evening when its 3 million inhabitants switch on evening lights. Instead we ascended into a dense, otherworldly cloud. Beautiful – utterly quiet and peaceful.
If you don’t know what “miske” is now, you’ll learn in Quito. It’s the distilled alcohol made from the nectar at the heart of local agave plants – the wild cousin of Mexico’s mezcal and tequila. La Casa Agave, a boutique miske producer and gold medal winner at San Francisco’s World Spirits Competition, is a great place to learn more and of course, taste. (https://casa-agave-ecuador.com/en/)
Know before you go
Ecuador has used U.S. currency since 1999 – so no need to bring anything but dollars. You may still receive some “sucre’ coins as change.
Quito sits at 9,350 feet elevation. If you think you might be prone to altitude sickness, talk to your doctor about a prescription for Acetazolamide.
I stayed at Hotel Mama Cuchara, an Art Hotel, in the city’s historic center, within easy walking distance of most major old town attractions. Rooms for two start at around $300 per night and include a lavish breakfast buffet. (https://hotelmamacuchara.com/us/)
I had two excellent guides in Quito. Each offers full-day city tours (including a visit to Mitad del Mundo) for up to three people for $120. The package includes private transportation, but not admission fees or lunch. Contact Daniel Diaz at firstname.lastname@example.org or Antonio Lescano at email@example.com Diaz offers half-day tours for $80.
Find the Quito Tourist Office at www.Quito.com.ec