For my first lunch on my own in Quito, I decided to just head into Old Town and wander around until I found something that looked good and cheap. The first restaurant I came across was Menestras del Negro:
It translates to “Beans of the Black” and if you’re not sure whether this is bizarrely offensive yet, take a closer look at the logo.
As an added stereotyping bonus, it’s attached to a KFC. I was sufficiently weirded out so I continued on.
A few blocks later, I found a little restaurant that had a lunch menu where several items were listed for $1.75 (Ecuador is on the US Dollar, so this is as cheap as it seems). Score! One of the items was “Pollo Broaster.” I don’t know what “broaster” means but pollo=chicken and I can hardly go wrong with that. I went in and stood around awkwardly for a few seconds trying to decide if I’m supposed to just sit at a table or wait to be seated. After nobody seemed to be trying to seat me, I just started walking around trying to find a table, but as I passed the kitchen, a waitress stopped me and said something quickly in Spanish that I didn’t understand, the jist of which seemed to be that I needed a ticket from the front counter. No problemo!
I went back to the counter up front and said I’d like “pollo broaster” and the cashier asked for $1.75, so I gave her a 10 and she gave me back $3.25 in change. I stared at her for a second trying to figure out if she’s trying to rip me off, but then she whipped out a piece of paper and wrote “Debe $5” which basically means she wrote me an IOU for $5. I can’t claim I have the currency here totally figured out, but I was pretty sure IOUs aren’t legal tender in Ecuador. I looked down at the slip of paper and asked, “Que?” She told me she’d pay me after my meal and handed me my ticket. Alright, fair enough.
First problem: solved! But then I realized there weren’t any free tables in the restaurant. I decided to just stand out of the way and wait for a table to open up, but one of the waitresses came up to me and said “something something something mesa [table] something something something,” so I told her, “No hay mesas [There aren’t tables].” She seemed patiently amused at my confusion and repeated the thing she just said about tables (that I still didn’t understand) but I was starting to suspect that she wanted me to just sit down at a table that was already occupied.
This was a really awkward situation. If I just sit down with say, the two parents and their kid at the table closest to me, and it turns out I misunderstood her, that’s pretty embarrassing because then I’m some strange white guy just plopping down in the middle of their family meal. On the other hand, it’s also kind of embarrassing to just stand there dumbly while the waitress keeps asking me to do something she clearly thinks is really easy. Luckily, a guy eating by himself noticed my confusion and gestured for me to come sit at his table, so I grabbed a seat.
Okay, cool, now that’s settled. But now I’m having lunch with this random guy? What’s the etiquette here? Am I expected to make chitchat with him because he graciously shared his table with me or do we just do our own thing. I guessed “do our own thing” and I believe I was correct since he just stared forward and finished his meal and left a few minutes later.
The rest of the meal was non-confusing/non-awkward. It turned out what I actually bought was a whole meal, with a meat stew, glass of fruit juice, and pollo broaster (mystery revealed: it’s fried chicken with rice and vegetables). All this for $1.75! I love Ecuador prices! I finished my food, traded in my IOU for 5 actual dollars and was on my way to find something else in Ecuador to severely confuse me.