This is my last Full Belly Files until September, unless my evolving trip to strike-struck Ecuador is completely canceled.
If all had gone as planned, I would have toured a farm and vineyard in the mountains east of Quito, Ecuador, yesterday, and dined last night at a lakeside place called Nuum Gastronomia, whose Instagram page — full of indigenous Andean ingredients, treated in gastronomic ways — is as exciting as anything I’m seeing stateside. Tonight, I’d be leaving my loft in the historic heart of Quito to eat at another place called Quitu Identidad Culinaria, which might be the most cutting-edge restaurant in all of Latin America.
None of that is happening, though.
A nationwide strike — led by Indigenous activists calling for cheaper gas, food, healthcare, and more — continues to grip Ecuador, primarily in the capital of Quito and the nearby mountain communities. Having now watched hours of live footage of the protests and read every report I can find in both English and Spanish, from mainstream sources to social media — all in an attempt to determine whether I should still go to Quito with my 12-year-old son in tow — I’ve become a bit of a minor expert on the politics of Ecuador.
In short, the strike, which seems to largely be about inflation, is causing roadblocks that are restricting the flow of goods and services in unpredictable ways. It’s also led to the deaths of both protestors (who get hit by tear-gas canisters) and government forces, whose convoys and offices have been attacked and burned. Cabbies and buses are being stopped in the street, tires slashed, in an effort to force the shutdown. Underlying it all is a simmering anti colonialist sentiment that continues to rise in South America and across the globe, so many of the battle lines are being carved around perceived race, wealth, and upbringing as well.
While there is large left-wing support for the Indigenous movement, many Quito residents — and much of Ecuador at large — seems ready to go back to work and generate income. Over the weekend, the increasingly unpopular center-right president lowered gas prices, ended a sort of martial law that had been going on for weeks, and briefly agreed to talk.
But those talks ended on Tuesday less than two days after they started. The protests fired up again, with allegations of abuse coming for all sides.
Our driving plan, hatched not very long ago, was to visit Ecuador’s Pacific Coast near the surf town of Olón, where our good friends, who are UCSB professors, have rented a home for the week with their sons. Only my son was available to join me from our family — my wife is busy with work, and my daughter has summer camps — and I decided to add a Quito leg to our trip to amplify the cultural and urban quotient.
That’s when I found out that the city had a vibrant culinary scene, seemingly on the verge of discovery by the world at large. I was hoping to tell that story and was in touch with a number of chefs there already. But by this past Monday, as the talks seemed to go south and protests got increasingly violent, I made the parental call to skip the Quito visit.
I’ve traveled to dicey zones many times in the past — indeed, much of my career was built on visiting postwar zones in Nagorno-Karabakh and Uganda, not to mention reporting from impoverished, somewhat sketchy parts of Belize, Bolivia, and India. But I didn’t think taking my kid into such an unclear situation would be wise.
When the talks fell apart on Tuesday, I felt even more confident in my decision. That our Airbnb host immediately refunded our rented loft was further indication that we made the right move, and the chefs I was in touch with were disappointed but understood. The tourism bureau that I had been in contact with just stopped responding.
When I first wrote this on Wednesday morning, we were still planning to check out the coast northwest of Guayaquil by flying down that way on a redeye Friday night. But on Wednesday night, my friends decided to avoid Ecuador altogether. So as I edit this Thursday morning, we’re headed to Panama, specifically Bocas del Toro. I spent about a week there 15 years ago as part of my cross-Panama honeymoon tour, so it will be fun to show my son where his mom and I enjoyed the early days of our marriage.
Let’s just hope Tropical Storm Bonnie stays out of our way. I won’t hold my breath.
No matter what, though, this will probably be my last Full Belly Files for a couple months. I am in severe need of a break from the weekly flow of the newspaper, so I am taking off the rest of July and August to focus on my other work, clean up my garage, tend to my yard, and enjoy a bit of summer like I haven’t been able to do in many years.
So thanks so much for reading and writing to me and enjoying this weekly content. I’ll be back in September!
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Quick Bites & Bevvies
My recent edible adventures closer to home have included:
- Solid soul food at Soul Bites on State Street, where I went with our food and drink writing fellow Vanessa Vin. Crispy fried chicken and fish, crunchy cracklins atop mac and cheese, and smoky collard greens with smoked turkey were highlights. We’ll get a story done soon enough!
- Spicy and smoky cocktails at Flor de Maiz with my longtime executive arts editor colleague Charles Donelan, who is now writing publicity for UCSB Arts & Lectures. I covered Flor de Maiz when they opened back in January 2020.
- Great Korean fried chicken sandwich at Secret Bao during last Saturday’s Solstice celebration, which we washed down with a Clarksburg chenin blanc by Weatherborne Wine Corp, whose winemakers used to be based here. I wrote about them back in 2017, and about Secret Bao when they opened in March 2021.
- The brunch menu at Coast Range in Solvang is ridiculous. I went for a meeting with Anna Ferguson-Sparks, and we ordered fish and chips and a peach-tomato-burrata salad to share. But the chef also brought out biscuits and gravy and a glorious Benedict. I wrote a bit about their Vaquero Bar soon after it opened in June 2021, but I’ll be back, with extra statins!
- Last and certainly not least, my family joined me for a trip to Casa Locé in Upper Ojai a couple Saturdays ago. That’s where Dominic O’Reilly, who I first met when writing about Topa Mountain Winery in 2018, was hosting a coming out party of sorts for his own wine brand Doctor’s Orders.
As the website shows, it is made under the Anna’s Cider umbrella, which he also makes, and that stuff is super quaffable. The dinner was great, if a little long at around six hours — two no-shows on their cooking staff didn’t help — and my kids made it most of the way through! I’ll be writing more about Dom soon.
From Our Table
In this week’s paper:
- I write about Chef Craig Riker, the new head at Finch & Fork inside the Kimpton Canary Hotel. His food is eye-opening, but his backstory of being a bassist in a nationally touring metal band called Deadsy was even more interesting.
- In The Restaurant Guy’s column, he hints at movement toward opening at the Dutch Garden, that historic German restaurant on State Street.
And here are some of my recent pieces for other publications:
- I did a piece on native bees for the UC Santa Barbara Magazine and learned all about the species other than honeybees that are critical to native plants and more.
- I interviewed a bunch of winemakers who surf for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, and they talked about what surfing teaches them about wine.
- I can’t recall if I dropped this one yet, but I recently wrote about the discovery of truffles in Paso Robles for Wine Enthusiast as well. I also spoke to truffle growers in France, Oregon, and Sonoma as well.
- One of my larger Wine Enthusiast features of the year was about three regions of the Central Coast where winemakers are tapping into historical roots to reenergize the modern scene: York Mountain next to Paso Robles, Chalone up in Monterey County, and the southern Santa Clara Valley.