I'm about to tell you something I never thought I'd say. I bought something I never thought I'd buy. And I'm sitting here enjoying something I never thought I'd enjoy.
Because of super-high import taxes, wine is the one thing that is unexpectedly expensive here. Chile is our next door neighbor, but it's a different country, so a bottle of Chilean wine, or any wine for that matter, costs more than in the US. Who knew?
The solution to this problem was revealed to us by an expat friend. Concha Y Toro, whose vintages you may have enjoyed, produces a boxed white and red priced at $4 something per liter at the Super Maxi. She told me to put my prejudice aside (we're not "wine snobs" or anything, but boxed wine--yikes!) and give it a try. I bought a box of tinto (red) and poured a taste with trepidation.
I was amazed that the stuff was better than awful; even better than pretty good. Truthfully we've had $10+ bottles in the States that were WAY worse. There's no date on the box so I'm guessing it's the extra-special 2010 variety. And I found a 1.5 liter box at a little corner grocery for $5 something, so we've discovered our own Trader Jose's "2 Buck Chuck.'
But this post is really about what's called the "typical lunch" here in Cuenca. There are restaurants tucked along streets serving their own versions all over town, often identified by a sandwich board posting the day's offering.
The lunch usually includes a glass of fresh juice, soup, an entree, and dessert, with prices we've paid ranging from $2.20 down to today's bargain $1.25. That's all in, tax & and tip included. In exchange for such a modest investment we've been happy to adventurously wing it even when we've had only a vague idea or in some cases no idea what we'll be served.
At the $2.20 establishment the meal started with a small basket of popcorn and there was a choice of 3 entrees. A $2.00 lunch elsewhere had no popcorn and only salt shakers on the tables (every place has a small bowl of a creamy hot sauce) so we figured that's what the extra 20 cents bought you. Salads aren't real popular here, so when the menu offers "ensalada" it's a tiny mound of finely chopped whatever and a faint flavoring that passes for salad dressing. Soups and juices, on the other hand, are diet staples. The servings are consistently generous and delicious.
At our "el cheapo" lunch spot today we started with the popcorn (a good sign), honeydew juice and yummy cream of carrot soup. We'd brought our Spanish dictionary along and had unsuccessfully tried to decipher the entree before entering. When it was brought to the table we were looking at a salad, beans and rice, and what appeared to be 3 chicken nuggets.
I popped one in my mouth and immediately understood that the reason I couldn't locate our main dish earlier was because I had been searching in the wrong section of the book. I was looking under "food & drink" instead of "anatomy." The only way I can describe what I was attempting to eat is "fried bones."
Yep. Battered and deep-fried bones with little slivers of a meat that was possibly chicken embedded in the crevices. I say "possibly chicken" because it tasted like chicken but we couldn't quite determine from what part of the fowl these particular bones could have been extracted. Their shape suggested perhaps the tail or wrist but those choices were obviously impossible.
But whatever we were gnawing on was tasty enough so like hungry vultures we reduced our nuggets to little piles of bones, learned by watching other tables that dessert wasn't part of the "tasting menu" here, paid $2.50 and departed.
A final note. The food here no matter what price is fresh, unadulterated, and delicious. Chickens don't look like small turkeys; fruit actually goes bad if you don't eat it soon after you buy it; eggs taste more---eggy?? It has been a joy to discover that real food still exists.