I don’t publish a lot of restaurant reviews on The Travelling Boomer. I leave that to the foodies, unless I find a place that’s really special. Usually that’s a historic eatery like Café Central in Vienna, or the Grand Café Orient in Prague. But now and then I come across a place that’s special in a different, quirky kind of way – like the one I found on the Plaza de Ponchos in Otavalo, Ecuador.
Despite the excellent produce available, most Ecuadorean cooking is nothing to write home about. The basic meal, called a menestra, consists of soup (always soup), followed by rice and stewed beans or lentils, a bit of shredded veggie salad, and a piece of meat that’s usually good for a long chew. If you seek out a good restaurant, you’ll get better meat – maybe even some guinea pig — and more adventurous side dishes, but haute cuisine is a rarity.
That’s why I was delighted to discover, in the Andean town of Otavalo, something so far from the daily drudge of menestras that it kindled a warm glow in my heart: a pie shop. In fact, if I hadn’t read about it in my Lonely Planet guidebook I might have missed it altogether. But there it was, hidden behind a rack of colourful hats on the town’s main plaza, a plain-looking shop with a sign that read: The Pie Shop “Shanandoa”.
And so I went in. It wasn’t exactly the pie shop I remember from my youth, with white table cloths and a counter lined with pies displayed under glass domes. It was a pie shop Ecuadorean style, with six or eight bare tables and a TV flickering silently in the corner. But there were flowers on the tables, the atmosphere was homey, and there, at the back of the shop, was a glass case filled with the main attraction: an amazing array of pies.
The older lady behind the counter looked a bit harried – it was market day, so the shop was filled with tourists. But asked about the offerings of the day, she dutifully recited the list: apple, blueberry, strawberry, lemon, lemon meringue, pineapple and maracuya (passion fruit, to you and me). A piece with a coffee was three dollars — three-fifty with a scoop of helado, or ice cream.
I eyed the more exotic items, but in the end, I couldn’t resist the look of the blueberry, and in a couple of minutes it was delivered to my table, piled high with blueberries and magically, still warm. No helado – my system quarrels with milk – but the coffee was black and hot.
For once I managed to wait long enough to take a photo before diving in, but it only took one bite to realize this was the real thing. I hadn’t had pie this good in a long time, the berries bursting with flavour but not too sweet, the crust rich and savoury. The coffee was good, too — not always the case in Ecuador, where some places still serve you a cup of hot water and a bowl of instant.
I hadn’t expected to stay too long in Otavalo, but a couple of days turned into a couple more, and a few days later I found myself back at the Shanandoa pie shop. I could have just had a regular lunch, but hey, this pie in the sky was too good to resist. This time I chose the strawberry, which the Lonely Planet writer had called “amazing”.
The pie shop’s hours were a bit on the wonky side – it was closed at times you’d expect a restaurant to be open, and open when you’d expect it to be closed. But on my last day in Otavalo, I found it open for business around midday, and decided on one last visit.
This time I was resolved to venture into the unknown, with a piece of the strange but enticing maracuya. My hopes were dashed: “No hay”, said the woman – none today. Disappointed, I chose the piña, or pineapple. Like the others it was warm as if from the oven, and it tasted even better than you’d imagine. I ate it with satisfaction, and the woman opened the door to let me out – the pie shop was closing for the day. Goodbye, Otavalo.
I’ve eaten in grander restaurants on my travels, and certainly more expensive ones. But there’s something about finding a warm, delicious taste of home in a far-off country that’s just as good as three Michelin stars. After all – what says home like a piece of pie?