On the northwest tip of South America, Ecuador is a petite country bursting with multiplicities—miles of Pacific Ocean coastline punctuated with the grandiose peaks of the Andes Mountains, encircled by tropical rainforest. I’ve never been to Ecuador—or South America, for that matter—but, luckily, I can easily travel to Que Gusto, a downtown eatery showcasing the diversity of traditional Latin cuisine via the humble empanada.
It’s possible you’ve strolled right past Que Gusto’s unassuming storefront nestled in the Archer Building on the edge of the Arts District. The casual café is a respite from the sometimes-hoity-toity offerings of our newly-developed downtown, boasting only a smattering of low-slung seating and small tables. I find a cozy spot to sit and am joined by owner Carla Meneses, an Ecuador native who arrived in Tulsa six years ago.
"Ecuador is such a small country, but we have the highlands and we have the beach, so there is a variety of fruits and vegetables. Everything is fresh, no canned items," Meneses said. "We have very good baking, because of Spanish-Italian influence. People don’t realize that. If you go into an Ecuadorian bakery, you will be wowed."
Meneses grew up cooking with her large family and turned that passion into a profession, capturing the comingling flavors of South America and making it her own. The empanada is the vehicle for this expression, and Que Gusto’s are unlike any I have ever encountered.
Empanadas can take many forms, but the basic concept is a hand-held pie, like a turnover, with a savory or sweet filling. The Colombian empanada, for example, is smaller and crunchy, made with a masa corn dough then deep fried. Que Gusto’s empanadas are larger, with a softer dough that is baked. The chubby envelope of golden dough with an egg-wash sheen is stuffed with 5 oz of all-natural, painstakingly sourced ingredients. Meneses is emphatic about using only the best available organic, grass-fed, locally-sourced vegetables, meats, eggs, oils, and flours.
"I took nutrition in college. I was always very passionate about the food and the source of it—the way they grow the cattle, the pigs or chickens." She sources most of her meat and eggs through 413 Farms, uses milk and cheese from Lomah Dairy, and bacon from Prairie Creek Farms.
The pork and potato empanada contains tender cubes of pork coated in a light yet complex sauce. The dough of the empanada has just enough elasticity to keep the contents in place, with a tender chew that’s flakey, yet not crunchy. Filling options also include organic chicken and cilantro, or beef with olives. At $8.50 each, one empanada is plenty to fill one belly.
Que Gusto also features wonderful vegetarian and vegan empanadas. The deep tone of the mushroom empanada is studded with seitan—a plant-based protein that lends a dense texture to filling. To produce the vegetarian empanada dough, Meneses uses organic coconut oil and almond milk, and almond flour is used for the gluten-free option.
Other snacky delights include the yucca fries, which have dethroned the haughty French fry on all fronts. With an indefatigable crunch and a lush, starchy interior, the yucca fries are paired with an addictive parsley sauce that implores you to eschew ketchup, henceforth.
The gluten-free yucca bread is made with a soft yucca dough that surrounds a dollop of melted Lomah Dairy cheese—perfect for a quick, relatively guilt-free snack. Que Gusto’s menu also includes a slow-roasted pork sandwich, reminiscent of a torta, and arroz con pollo, a Latin-style rice and chicken dish. And save room for dessert, because the tiramisu and tres leches cookies are worth every calorie.
Open for breakfast, Que Gusto has grab-and-go options like overnight oats or muesli—apple juice-soaked oats, mixed with grass-fed yogurt, fruit, walnuts, and honey. Savory selections like omelets and breakfast empanadas pair perfectly with one of their coffee drinks, featuring organic beans from free trade farms in South America.
"Food needs to be honest," Meneses said. "I know that I could make more money if I cut some things, but I don’t want that. People sometimes have no idea that when they eat here, they are eating the best quality food that can be found on the market. We really try to keep our prices low because I want something accessible for everyone."
Located at 105 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Que Gusto is open bright and early at 8 a.m. on the weekdays, 10 a.m. on Saturdays, and stays open until 9 or 10 in the evenings.