A food cart named desire

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The carreta (or food cart), and everything that revolves around it, is an intrinsic part of Guayaquil, still very much in use, although it has probably changed radically from its original format. An important source of culinary creativity for Guayaquil’s varied and fascinating cuisine, the carreta is a fundamental piece of the Guayaquil cultural puzzle.

The dynamic of the food cart world works something like this: people push their restaurant on wheels around town until they find a specific corner, at first struggling for trade. If the aroma of their recipes and their operatic abilities at shouting out their virtues make the grade, someone will notice the ‘new’ place and try it out. If it’s good, they’ll bring friends. In time, long lines gather in front of their steaming containers. Their reputation may even reach “urban legend” status.

Here, strategies divide. Some take root and become fully-fledged, formal “dives” or picanterías, which, if things go according to plan, fan out across the city as different branches, or even franchises. Others remain true to their two-wheel roots, like Crucelina’s burger joint on 9 de Octubre, the carreta of cocolón and guatita on Ayacucho and Gallegos Lara, the “Sergeant’s” sausage soup on Calle Esmeraldas, or Encebollados ‘Don Pepe’ in the Bellavista neighborhood. Once served by the carreta vendor, the clients ‘crouch’ on the sidewalk, or eat standing up, enjoying the taste of Guayaquil’s culinary essence (informal food kiosks and carts are also known as ‘agachaditos’, or crouchers).

There are hundreds of small entrepreneurs who, week after week, request their permit to operate on Guayaquil streets, keeping the tradition of the old carreta alive.

This ‘open restaurant’, popular on the Malecón over half a century ago, was originally a sophisticated wooden structure with wheels, that would transform into a food stand; one of the most popular was called La Fundadora (The Founder), serving the river’s denizens day and night.

“At the carretilla, everyone ate democratically,” explains historian Jenny Estrada, “from the high-hatted monsieur to the docker, from the banker to the shoe-shiner, from the nice girl to the prostitute, from river’s fishermen to peasant newcomers, the lonely and the lovers, the ‘gang of 9 de Octubre’ to the troublemakers down at the shipyard. Some had enough to order a full meal with rice, meat and maduro (plantain), other could only afford the sauce from the seco’s stew.”

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