Take a walk down almost any street in Cuenca and you’re likely to find a Chifa restaurant. In fact, Chifa, the Ecuadorian version of Chinese food, has become so popular here that there are approximately 35 ‘Chifas’ in Cuenca. The thing with Chifas, and we’ll leave it up to you to decide whether it’s good or bad, is that they are all pretty much the same. The menus are more or less identical, and what you typically end up with is a bucket of greasy rice with whatever veg and protein you ordered. There’s little by means of flair or creativity, it’s just filling – very filling.
I asked a couple of Chinese friends living in Cuenca what they thought about Chifa and they screwed up their faces, before pulling out some business cards of authentic Chinese food joints in Cuenca. I went to try some of those places and was not disappointed.
Of course, whilst most of our Ecuadorian friends will refer to any Asian person or restaurant as Chino (and any white person as Gringo), we should make the point that Asia is far more than just China. Asia stretches far west to the Red Sea, north to the Arctic Ocean, south to the Indian Ocean, and to the Pacific Ocean in the east. Technically, it even touches the Mediterranean Sea. That’s A LOT of cultures with unique and delicious cuisines, some of which have made it here, to the beautiful colonial Ecuadorian city of Cuenca.
Let’s get things underway, with the slight disclaimer that this article is a continuously evolving piece and will be updated when our editorial team reviews incoming Asian food recommendations.
Before I moved to Cuenca, I was a resident of the incredible Kingdom of Thailand, where I taught English, studied Thai, and learned cooking from a close friend, while enjoying one of the world’s biggest and most sensory-rich cities. When I moved to Cuenca, I knew it was unlikely that I’d ever find anyone to speak Thai with. That was until I found Thai Connection. The first time I went in, I began speaking Thai with the chef, an elderly lady from the Bang Po district of Bangkok. She wasn’t particularly shocked, as a mutual friend has told her about a young foreigner with conversational Thai skills, and so half-expected to meet me at some point.
Beyond the warm welcome, the ambiance is very nice. The use of orange and yellow decor, nice wooden furniture, traditional paintings and buddhas, and a friendly waiter with reasonable English skills all made me feel quite welcome. As for the food, it was delicious! We went for drunken noodles, a glass noodle salad, a red curry, and spring rolls, as well as the delicious Thai tamarind iced tea (the tea alone is worth the journey).
Rather than being transported back to happy times in Thailand, I found that the food was somewhat fusion. The spring rolls were not rice paper, but more like pastry. The glass noodle salad was served hot, whereas it’s served cold in Thailand. The red curry was not as thick as I’m used to, and was easily twice the size of a Thai portion (this wasn’t such a bad thing). In fact, all the dishes were huge portions, which represents good value for paying customers. Whilst the food might have veered more towards Ecuadorian taste buds (is Thaifa a word?), it is fully enjoyable and retains many of the original qualities.
Thai Connection Summary
- Food: 8.5/10
- Environment: 8/10
- Pricing: 7/10
- Pros: Great location, actual Thai chef (some of the time), spicy food, Thai tea
- Cons: Half the menu is unavailable with stickers blocking options out, some ingredients can’t be found here (not their fault), quite expensive, and only open from 12pm-7pm.
- Location: Honorato Vasquez y Hermano Miguel
- Phone/WhatsApp: +593 98 704 6607
- Social Media: https://www.instagram.com/thaiconnectioncuenca/
NOE Sushi Bar
Ask an expat where they should go for sushi in Cuenca and the automatic response is generally NOE Sushi Bar. And, with good reason. They’ve built their reputation for high quality sushi that incorporates fusion elements from Ecuadorian cuisine:
“This fusion has catapulted us because we have balanced flavors with Japanese ingredients and our Ecuadorian products, resulting in these unique and different flavors for the Ecuadorian and foreign palate. In addition, we take care of the quality of our dishes, maintaining the discipline and presentation during the whole creation process.”
– Hernán Carmona, Cofounder of Noe Sushi Bar
The end result is a feast for the stomach and eyes. Check out Jason’s recent experience at NOE Sushi Bar Cuenca in the following video:
NOE is the type of place you want to take that date you’re looking to impress or to celebrate with friends & family. But, they’ve also made some great strides recently with their delivery deals (check NOE’s Facebook for these), making it more affordable to enjoy luxury sushi from your couch, fireplace, terrace or our favorite; the jacuzzi.
Their extensive menu includes sushi, sashimi, tempura, and ramen bowls, along with some dishes that cater to those non-sushi lovers such as their meat, salads and cooked seafood offerings. This ensures there is something for the entire family to enjoy. There’s an outdoor play area for kids too.
The service at NOE is what you’d expect from a quality restaurant; attentive, personal & friendly.
You owe it to yourself to try NOE Sushi Bar at least once whilst you’re in Cuenca.
NOE Sushi Bar Summary
- Food: 9.5 /10
- Environment: 9/10
- Pricing: 6/10
- Pros: Unique fusion of Sushi with Ecuadorian cuisine, high quality, extensive menu suitable for non-sushi lovers, perfect place to impress or celebrate.
- Cons: High quality doesn’t come cheap, this is not an everyday meal type of place for most expats or locals.
- Location: Padre Julio Matovelle 2-25, Cuenca. One street back from Remigio Crespo.
- Website: https://www.noesushibar.com
- WhatsApp/Phone +593 1800 663 663
- Reservations: https://www.noesushibar.com/reservas/?local=13
- Social Media: https://www.facebook.com/noesushibar
On a beautiful sunny day back at the start of September, I organized a brunch event for friends at a new café run by a Chinese family in the center of Cuenca (see the bonus section at the foot of this article). Having enjoyed sweet soya goodies and Chinese-style coffee brews, we decided to maintain the Chinese theme and head for lunch at Lamian China (we also went for bubble tea for dessert). Among the group of us who went, about half had been before and they absolutely raved about the food and service. It was merited.
Just on the edge of Parque de la Madre, we entered Lamian and were seated at the biggest table, a huge circle with a Lazy Susan (a rotating platform in the center to help spin the food to its desired consumer). The menu, rather than being filled with 7 versions of fried rice, offered dishes made with fresh noodles prepared daily on the property, and Dim Sum style dumplings either boiled or fried and served in bamboo baskets, the traditional way.
There was something for everyone to enjoy at Lamian, from the delicious food to the spinning table, and from the friendly service to the good energy that revolved around the place. Lamian is modern, inviting, and top of my list of places to go back and enjoy all over again. Best Chinese food in Cuenca? Most foreigners would say so.
Lamian China Summary
- Food: 9/10
- Environment: 8/10
- Pricing: 8/10
- Pros: Great location, freshly prepared noodles each day, excellent menu, nice design touches, cool spinning table
- Cons: I’m not sure I can find one…
- Location: Parque de la Madre
- Phone/WhatsApp: +593 98 636 3066
Chinnu and her family are building quite a reputation here in Cuenca. With their authentic Indian menu, as opposed to a westernized version of Indian food, you can be sure of aromatic, spicy, and flavorsome dishes from start to finish. Being British, I was raised on Indian food, and I was heartily impressed by the generous servings, eye-watering spice level (which I requested), and warm service. When we left, we had huge smiles and felt like Chinnu was a new friend.
There are other restaurants with Indian food in Cuenca, but none of them impressed me. Paradise Indian, on the other hand, earned a new customer, and whenever a British friend comes to visit, I’ll be bringing them straight here. What was most impressive was that my friend, who said she had only ever had bad Indian food experiences, saw a spicy coconut chicken dish which aligned well with her Costeña taste buds. She was converted and had only good things to say afterward.
What’s even better about Paradise Indian is that they’re a valued partner of the YapaTree discount card. As one of our newest partners, we have to say that the feedback we’ve been hearing has been nothing short of exceptional. On top of that, Chinnu and her family stay true to Indian customs, hosting special dining experiences on Indian holidays. They recently did an incredible all-you-can-eat Thali-style buffet for just $12 per head.
Paradise Indian Summary
- Food: 9/10
- Environment: 9/10
- Pricing: 8/10
- Pros: Authentic, delicious, aromatic, spicy, fantastic personable service, great vegetarian options.
- Cons: Can be quite costly if you’re eating communally, service can be slow at times.
- Location: Av. Federico Malo – Parque de la Madre.
- Phone/WhatsApp: +593 98 462 8976
- Social media: https://www.facebook.com/paradiseindianrestaurantcuenca/
- YapaTree Deal: https://yapatree.com/deal/paradise-indian-restaurant/
With 73 reviews and 4.8 stars on Google and 5 Stars with 8 reviews on TripAdvisor, it is surprising that more expats are not familiar with this authentic Chinese restaurant. Ta’ Lico is owned and run by a Chinese couple that does all the cooking themselves. Qi or “Teresa” (her self-chosen Ecuadorian name for ease of use) is an engaging hostess that speaks English, Spanish, and Chinese. It is obvious she cares deeply about the diner’s experience, as you are likely to find yourself engaged in some interesting conversation with her during your meal.
The menu is not loaded with Chaulafan rice-heavy dishes or papas fritas like the “Chifas” adapted for Ecuadorian tastes. Instead, it is long and diverse with many favorites from big-city Chinese menus from around the world. Sweet and sour pork, Kung Pao Shrimp or Chicken, Spicy Yuxiang Pork, and awesome soups: Won Ton, Poached beef with hot chili, and the otherwise impossible to find in Cuenca, Hot and Sour soup. Steamed and fried dumplings are as good as I have eaten anywhere, handmade by Teresa to order. Portions are large and call for para llevar containers to take home your leftovers.
The name “Ta Lico is actually a play on words, and a bit of self-deprecating humor mimicking the sound of a Chinese speaker pronouncing Esta Rico (“It’s delicious” in Spanish).
Open 7 days a week from 11:30 am. Best to message in advance to pre-order your meal and advise on the number of diners.
- Food: 9/10
- Pricing: 8/10
- Environment: 7/10
- Pros: Authentic food selection, enigmatic host, not a Chifa, the focus is on quality food
- Cons: Not very aesthetically pleasing, the menu could do with a redesign, shuts early
- Location: Av Ordóñez Lasso 6-117 – Opposite Hotel Oro Verde
- WhatsApp: +593 991 140 201 for pre-orders and home delivery orders
- Social Media: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100046352662598
As I stood on the corner of San Sebastian park, looking down Mariscal Sucré, I was wholeheartedly disappointed to see that Osaka Ramen was closed. I berated myself for not checking the Google schedule. That was until I saw the glowing neon lights of their second location. It must be difficult, when a restaurant has two locations about 25m apart, to put accurate information on Google, especially when one is more of a lunch spot and the other more for dinner (someone has told me).
Passing through the arch and into the restaurant, I was greeted by Japanese artwork and a very friendly server. Downstairs are only four tables, but there are a few more upstairs. Overall, it’s a wee dining spot, but size doesn’t really matter (am I right guys?). It’s what’s on the inside that counts. Inside I felt like I was back in Asia, in some regard.
I ordered Gyoza and Taiwanese beef noodles, and my friend went for the Dragon Boat sushi. We each had an Imperial Lemonade, and the bill came to $38.50. For me, that’s well overpriced. Was it worth it? Sure, as a once-a-year treat. For me, the food and ambiance didn’t do enough to justify the price. If you cut the price in half I think it would make more sense, but given the limited number of quality Asian restaurants in Cuenca, I think they’re able to charge more to a captive audience.
What I was pleased about was receiving chopsticks instead of cutlery, and that the spicy sauce on the table was ACTUALLY eye-wateringly spicy. My friend’s sushi also came with a healthy serving of real Wasabi paste, which lit up my nose like a feriado night sky.
Osaka Ramen Summary
- Food: 8/10
- Environment: 7/10
- Pricing: 5/10
- Pros: Great location, genuinely spicy, fast service, accepts cards, big portions, chopsticks
- Cons: Overpriced, no seating options for large groups, wasn’t offered a glass for my drink
- Location: Parque San Sebastian
- Phone/Whatsapp +593 96 881 5465
- Social Media: https://www.instagram.com/osaka_ramen_cuenca/
Kaimi Sushi and Ramen
Rica and her son Kaitaro might be better known for the roles they’ve played over the last few years at Osaka Ramen, which is owned by Rica’s father. Recently, however, this mother-son duo, and their sushi chef Javi, set about creating Kaimi. The menu itself is fairly similar to Osaka Ramen, but a great deal more economic. The restaurant itself is also much nicer, lighter, and offers an open kitchen where you can sit and talk to the bilingual trio whilst watching them prepare. With a focus on fresh ingredients and food that is cooked with love and care, this is by no means fast food, it’s a wholesome experience to be savored.
I was thoroughly impressed by chef-come-dancer Kaitaro, as natural with a kitchen knife doing fine chopping as he is handling huge roaring flames over the industrial stove. At 16, he found out that his family was moving to Ecuador at short notice and it’s impressive how well-integrated he is here, now 21, speaking fluent Spanish and English, teaching dancing, and performing choreographed routines around the city.
I’ll be honest, sushi has never been my thing, and I’ve often gone to lengths to avoid it (part of why I sent Jason to Noe in the next section), however, Kaitaro and Javi have converted me. My sushi barrier has been lifted, and now at least I know one place where the sushi is to my liking, and for that transformation, I must give them full credit. I won’t say I’m a sushi lover, but I’ve been craving Kaimi’s sushi ever since I left.
Arguably the best Asian food I’ve had in Cuenca. I sat up at the open kitchen bar and watched fresh gyozas be made in front of me (most restaurants are clearly freezer gyozas), two different sushi rolls formed with skill, crispy orange chicken double fried for delicious texture, and a Massaman-style spicy chicken curry cooked with roaring high flames, all whilst deep in conversation. Highly impressive for a place that has only just opened.
Kaimi Sushi and Ramen Summary
- Food: 10/10
- Environment: 7/10
- Pricing: 9/10
- Pros: Talented team, bilingual, affordable pricing, super friendly, great care taken with food quality, everything made fresh to order
- Cons: small restaurant not designed for large groups, longer waiting times than some rivals, yet to establish itself in the market
- Location: Max Uhle 1-65 y González Suárez (right next to Plaza Bocatti)
- WhatsApp: +593 998 868 277
- Email: [email protected]
- Social Media: www.instagram.com/kaimirestaurant
Bonus: Tres Cafe!
A few months back, I dropped on my friends Martin and Gracie, owners of Graciesnaturalshop in Hermano Miguel. I’ve mentioned them a few times in this article because they are my closest tie to Cuenca’s Asian community, and a lot of what I know is thanks to them. They’re also on the Yapa Tree card with an excellent discount. On the day in question, Martin asked me if I had a bit of time to visit a new friend of his. We walked a couple of blocks and came across an unmarked café, yet to open its doors to the public. Inside, I met James Lee, a fellow immigrant starting a new life in Cuenca.
Tres Café represents James, his wife, and his daughter. They are from a line of coffee brewers and have made the bold decision to enter Cuenca’s competitive café market, bringing their seasoned knowledge and unique Asian-style desserts with them. I’ve been a few times since this first meeting, trying different desserts and coffee brews, and what strikes me as interesting is just how different they are from the competition. The desserts are unlike anything else on the market here, aside from one which is a Japanese sweet soy-based dish that looks like Tres Leches, but it is far richer and more interesting in flavor. Unlike most cafés here, which procure their coffee from Loja or Zaruma, James explored Ecuador and found that the Manabi beans were most similar to what he is used to working with. This Manabi coffee really adds to the whole taste experience.
I recommend a trip to Tres Café, to meet James, who speaks English, and his attentive and friendly family. Who would have thought that a Chinese café would add so much additional value to Cuenca’s Café scene? Unfortunately, the Lee family won’t be here forever, as they’ve decided to move to Portugal and have put Tres Café up for sale. Enjoy it while you can.
- Location: Juan Jaramillo 7-64 y Luis Cordero
Have we missed your favorite Asian restaurant in Cuenca?
Don’t worry, we’ll be updating this guide as we visit more places worthy of recommendation. Got a place that needs to be included? Hit us up in our Cuenca Facebook Group or contact us here and let us know.