What is it with car alarms in South America? Not for the first time over the last two weeks, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a car alarm. But this wasn’t your normal car alarm – this was a mechanical screeching (as I’ve typed these first lines to this entry, two separate car alarms have gone off) that started at 3:45 a.m. and lasted for at least ten minutes. I couldn’t get back to sleep after that, so I progressed through the day with minimal rest. Oh well. You win some and you lose some.
I left my hotel at around 7:45 this morning to catch the Mercado Central’s 8 a.m. opening. I got there just as it was opening, which probably explains why many of the displays were lacking in merchandise. The majority of people at the market were there for breakfast, and from what I could tell, nearly half of the market, which covers two floors, was devoted to food stalls. (Another car alarm went off just now.)
I felt a little uncomfortable taking photos here, largely because people there were staring at me – was it because I’m a foreigner or because I’ve got a camera slung around my neck? – so I didn’t overdo the shots.
In the end, I decided to have breakfast here. I found a small stall specializing in four types of food – encebollado mixto (mixed onions), corvina frita (fried sea bass), ceviche de concha or camaron (conch or shrimp ceviche), and pescado frito (fried whole fish) – and went with the corvina frita (though maybe I should have gone with conch ceviche).
It had a nice crisp coating with tender white meat beneath, and there were virtually no bones, which is always a plus. (Another car alarm just went off.) I was surprised by the popcorn, which I didn’t really want, but tried a piece anyway. It was popcorn, what can I say? I couldn’t eat it on top of everything else, especially so early in the morning, and besides, the fish, rice, and fried potatoes totally filled me up. The cost of my meal was $2, which seems pretty reasonable to me.
El Mercado Central is located between Manabi and Esmeraldas on Avenida Pichincha. It’s opens every day 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., except Sundays when it closes at 3 p.m.
At around 9:30 I decided to hit another museum, El Museo del Banco Central, which is purported to be Quito’s best. I took a taxi from the Old Town (El Centro), where I’m staying, to the New Town, which is Quito’s urban center. My driver dropped me off at El Banco Central, which compelled me to ask if the Museo del Banco Central is located within El Banco Central. He said, “Yes, it’s on the second floor,” so I paid him and got out. However, once I passed through security and got inside, it became clear to me that this was in fact just a bank. I approached one of the security guards there and asked where I could find the Museo del Banco Central, and he pointed vaguely in one direction and told me it’s about fifteen minutes away. He wrote, “La Casa de la Cultura” on a piece of paper and told me that that was where I wanted to go. I thanked him and started walking. But the road quickly forked, so I stopped again and asked a woman on the street. She pointed back in the direction of the bank I’d just left, so my next question to her was, “Where is La Casa de la Cultura?” She pointed me in the direction I’d been walking, so I continued another five minutes until the road forked again.
This time I asked a group of students who were hanging outside their building, and I got mixed information. Finally, one of them shouted over the others that it was only five minutes more in the direction I was walking, so I figured I might as well go on. I finally found La Casa de la Cultura and asked a woman inside where the entrance to the museum was.
From there I decided to leave New Town and see what Mariscal Sucre had to offer. I noticed in my guidebook that there was a Vietnamese restaurant called Uncle Ho’s, and I thought this might be worth checking out. I took another taxi there, and as soon as we hit Mariscal Sucre I shuddered. For those of you who know Khao San in Bangkok or Pham Ngu Lao in Saigon, it’s basically Quito’s equivalent of those backpacker areas. I’m sure Mariscal Sucre offers more than just backpacker hangouts, but that was the impression I got. I have no idea why travelers would choose to base themselves here rather than in the Old Town, which offers so much, unless it’s just to party and generally not worry about leaving their comfort zones. But whatever. To each his or her own.
But my rant doesn’t end here. I was wondering about the name of the restaurant – most Vietnamese living overseas wouldn’t dare name their restaurant after Ho Chi Minh (or paint Ho Chi Minh’s face on one wall of the restaurant) – so I thought there was probably an interesting story behind this.
As soon as I got there I saw that there were no Vietnamese people anywhere – just Ecuadorian cooks and waitresses and a handful of Western backpackers.
When I sat down and saw the menu, I decided immediately to try pho bo. Since Ecuador has many of the ingredients that one can find in Vietnam, I thought there was a decent chance of getting authentic pho. However, when it arrived I immediately wanted to push it back. Where were the sprouts? Where was the lemon leaf? Where was the mint and basil? What was that brown gunk crusted around the side of the bowl, and what were those other vegetables doing floating around in the muck that tried to pass itself off as broth? And my god, how could this cost $7??
My first bite told me that my initial reaction was well founded. The broth was merely lukewarm and tasted like beef broth flavored with steak seasoning. The beef pieces were thick and impossible to chew, and the noodles weren’t like any pho noodles I’d ever seen before – plus they hardly put any noodles at all in the bowl. The combination of vegetables – red and orange peppers and raw red onion – didn’t work well here. In short, it was horrible. And again, the $7 pricetag made it a rip-off.
They did a fine enough job with the Vietnamese coffee – it was about as good as you’d get in the U.S., which, as I’ve said elsewhere on my blog, isn’t particularly authentic.
The owner is apparently an Aussie, and his workers are all Ecuadorian. As I left, unable to get the owner’s attention, I imagined that this was a good business idea for him – he filled a niche in a well-trafficked backpacker area – but seriously, this places needs to learn what pho is. This was like a hodgepodge of whatever they happened to have lying around their kitchen. No offense to the cook – I’m sure he’s excellent and that he did what he was told to do.
Uncle Ho’s is located at 166-E8-29 José Calama Street (near the corner of Diego de Almagro Street). Tel: (02) 603-4954. I don’t recommend their Vietnamese menu, but their Ecuadorian menu items might be fine. Still, I’d avoid Mariscal Sucre since the Old Town’s nearby and is a much better option overall.
This evening I did my usual thing – wander around town, starting at the Plaza Grande to see what’s happening (I was told there’d be a jazz concert, but it didn’t happen), and look for somewhere to eat dinner.
I hadn’t realized it, but the skies were about to open up and unleash a downpour, complete with thunder and lightning. Luckily I’d found my way to a restaurant called Don Pancho, which specializes in chicken dishes of all types.
Not wanting anything very heavy, I ended up choosing caldo de gallina ($2.50), which is a soup containing a large hunk of cooked chicken, cooked potatoes, green onions, dill, and carrots. I’ve had variations of this before, but not this dish specifically. It was better than I expected, and I was already expecting it to hit the spot in a big way.
The chicken was perfectly cooked, the soup wasn’t too salty, and the only trouble I had eating it was spooning the meat off the bone without splashing the soup all over myself (I’m proud to say it only happened once).
The location of Don Pancho is a bit off the Old Town’s main roads, but it’s worth climbing the extra block or two from La Merced Church at Chile and Cuenca streets. You can find Don Pancho on the corner of Chile and Imbabura. It’s a good place to get take-out, too.
Tomorrow I head to Otavalo for two nights, and then I’m back in Quito for another night before hitting Cuenca, Guayaquil, and the Galapagos. I’m not sure that I’ll have daily access to the Internet during this time, but I should – at least until I get to the Galapagos.