I recently came back from Ecuador. Spent the bulk of my time on a boat in the Galapagos Islands, but had two dinners and a lunch in Quito:
La Querencia (Av. Eloy Alfaro N34-194 y Catalina Aldaz): Tour-company-sponsored dinner at high-end restaurant featuring what is billed as "typical foods of Ecuador." This place had some hits and misses. My friends and I shared three starters: a cheese-meat empanada (muy tipico), a plate of what Id describe as cheese-filled tostones (small round corn cakes filled with cheese), and a potato-cheese soup. The soup was the winner, especially when huge spoonfuls of aji were dumped into it. Aji, which in Ecuador means a particular kind of salsa made from aji peppers and is available on every table in every restaurant, is fantastic and really makes eating in Ecuador much more interesting than it otherwise would be. Our main dishes included a goat stew with potatoes (OK, but nothing special), grilled marinated pork with fried plantains and stewed hominy (excellent), and grilled sea bass served with rice (again, nothing special). For dessert we got fried dough with honey, which they were gracious enough to add ice cream to. It was OK. I dont know how much this meal cost since it was included in my trip price, but I bet it was enough to buy about 20 dinners at the next restaurant I ate at
Mystery restaurant in the old section of Quito (somewhere between Plaza San Francisco and Plaza San Domingo): While we were wandering around the old town, it got to be lunchtime and we went into a restaurant that catered to the workers in the neighborhood. On the table was a menu listing various a la carte options, which we intended to order, but by mistake said "yes" to the waitress when she inquired if we wanted "almuerzitas." I thought this just meant lunch, but it turned out to be the set lunch menu. Excellent choice, as it turned out. The first course was a huge bowl of potato-vegetable soup with a little piece of chicken neck or wing (which my vegetarian friend fished out), then a main plate of grilled beef, rice, potatoes in sauce, and salad, and finally a dessert of fried dough with honey. Simple, very tasty food (again, livened up by the obligatory spoonfuls of aji)and the price was unbeatable. Including a bottle of mineral water, the total tab for two was $2.90. Lunch places like this are all over the old part of town. No English spoken, but you really dont need any, since they all have set menus.
Terraza del Tartaro (corner of Av. Rio de Amazonas and Veintimilla). Look for the huge sign on the top of a tall office building, and take the special elevator in the lobby that the guard will point you to. The restaurant is on the top floor.) Quitos answer to Windows on the World, located on the top of an office tower, with windows all around and great views. This was another high-end choice, at which I paid about $20 for an entree, a pisco sour, and my share of a bottle of Santa Rita cabernet. Very good service, and the food was nice if not particularly interesting. I had what was billed as steak a la español, which turned out to be grilled steak in a wine sauce with a lot of onions. Good enough, but the atmosphere, service, and view were the real draws here, since we were looking for a celebratory last-night dinner. I wouldnt call it a Chowhound place, but it served its purpose well.
Other interesting food notes for Ecuador:
(1) Ceviche is served everywhere, and you can get it with corvina (sea bass) as well as shellfish. What is great is that ceviche is always served with a little bowl of popcorn, which youre supposed to mix in. Once we got it with toasted hominy, great just by itself. I have no idea where that popcorn thing came from, but its damn good popcorn.
(2) All over the colonial district, restaurants advertise "café con humitas." I had to get this, just to see what it was, even though I was still stuffed from my $1.25 lunch. Humitas are a cornmeal cake steamed in a green corn husk-very tasty. The one I had wasnt sweet, which was a little surprising since they seemed to be something intended as a snack to go with coffee. As it turned out, I had actually had one of these at an Ecuadorean restaurant right in my hometown, and that was a lot better than the one I ate in Quito!
(3) Ordering coffee is just a complete mystery no matter where you go. In the course of a single day, I ordered "café con leche" three times, and this is what I got: the first time, a waiter poured hot coffee and then hot milk into my cup. Perfect. The second time, I asked for leche but was told that they only had "crema." OK, I thought, but what showed up at my table was a cup of black coffee and a plate of whipped cream. The third try, café con leche was in fact on the menu, but what showed up on the table was a cup filled to the rim with hot milk and a jar of Nescafe--mix it yourself! (Nescafe! Isn't Ecuador a major coffee-growing nation?) When I got back to the States I asked my boss, who is Colombian, how to order a cup of black coffee with a side of milk. She suggested I try for "café tinto" but also said that even she couldnt figure out how to get what she wanted in a lot of places in South America. Apparently not just every country, but every region, has its own coffee drink vocabulary. Very tricky, but good if you like surprises!