After a week in Quito, my friend and I moved on to Cuenca, a pleasantly laid-back and walkable colonial town in Ecuador’s central highland. Cobbled streets are lined with ornate turn-of-the-20th century buildings, stuccoed and low-rise. Initially, the food scene did not look promising — the variety and number of markets and restaurants were smaller than in Quito — and how much pork can you eat? But that was soon to change.
TASTE OF ECUADOR
A series on the South American country's cuisine.
On a quiet Sunday morning we strolled a few blocks from our hotel to Tiestos, which might be the best restaurant in Ecuador. I knocked on the bolted rustic door and was admitted by chef-owner Juan Solano, a large jovial man clad in a splattered apron and work-worn bandana. He told me that he would like to fix us a special meal so we could taste everything — an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Chef Solano, 38, has roots in Cuenca that go back centuries. “The street we’re on, Juan Jaramillo, is named after a relative of mine,” he points out. “My family began with a grocery store decades ago. My mother started making ice cream to sell to the kids after school and it was such a success that it became the focus of her business. Everybody would say, ‘Let’s go down to the tienda for ice cream,’ so they named it Heladeria La Tienda — a combination of ‘ice cream shop’ and ‘the store.’ ”
At Ecuador’s best-known culinary school, Solano learned to cook primarily European cuisine. “I didn’t see why I couldn’t present Ecuadorean recipes in a sophisticated and creative way,” he says. So, two years ago he opened Tiestos, named after the Castilian term for a traditional ceramic plate used for cooking in most kitchens here. Solano’s wife, Laura, prepares the desserts. “My whole family works in the restaurant; we’re always together,” he says. The dining room, rustic stucco and set with hand-hewn tavern tables, is warm and welcoming.
International touches for Andean cuisine
Tiestos’ dishes are based on Spanish and indigenous Andean traditions, but the chef adds touches of his own; an Argentine chimichurri, or an Indian-influenced fruit chutney. All utilize ingredients native to the area. Upon sitting down, we were presented with eight little dishes of appetizers and condiments: roasted potatoes, several pickled onion with chilies preparations, some fruity salsas and one curious tomatoey and mildly picante sauce that turned out to be made from tomate de arbol. The dishes reminded me of Korean banchan plates. Appetizers included a dense, fragrant tamal that bore little resemblance to the Mexican version; its ruddy dough made of ground hominy and scented with clove and achiote, wrapped in a leaf called achila, then steamed. We moved on to the predictable locro (the country’s ubiquitous creamy potato soup, here done with chancha, a typical yellow potato), subtly perfumed with ground nutmeg and cinnamon.
Then the curtain went up on the stars of the show, the tiestos themselves: meats and fish broiled/roasted tandoori style on the aforementioned flat ceramic dishes. These beautiful hand-wrought plates, blackened from constant baking over wood-fueled stoves, were brought to the table, sizzling and smoking.
The first consisted of enormous succulent shrimp, bathed and broiled in strong farmyard butter. The butter and smoke permeated each bite — perfection itself. Next came the lomo fino a la crema, falling-apart beef tenderloin in a melted cheese sauce. This was a local variation of solomillo al cabrales, the famous blue cheese-enveloped meat-fest from northern Spain. We didn’t have room for the curried chicken Solano offered, but I smelled a sample as it sailed by — I almost could have been talked into it. The food here was rich and heartwarming, country cooking at its best. While dishes ranged from indigenous Andean folk fare (the tamales) to Spanish colonial adaptations (the meat) all were done with respect to local as well as international tradition. I treasure the casual roughness of this kind of unfussy cooking.
A visit to the mercado in Cuenca, Ecuador
The next morning, Chef Solano was kind enough to invite us to accompany him to the sprawling mercado de abastos (wholesale market) where he buys his produce for the week. As the early morning fog lifted, we drove to San Joaquin, an outlying community known as “the garden of Cuenca.” Solano has shopped there since childhood and knows the names of many of the vendors who come from the surrounding countryside to sell their produce. We breakfasted on tamales, a long skinny earthy one called a chibil and a round delicately flavored timbulo, washing them down with pinazo con boldo, a slimy and bitter medicinal infusion whose ingredients I didn’t recognize. In one aisle, we observed a stout, hat-clad indigenous woman performing a limpia, or spiritual cleansing, on a young girl; she swatted the poor frightened creature with leaves and waved burning incense all about. The girl sat patiently for a time and finally burst into tears. With a hint of gringo cynicism, I asked Solano about it. “When my daughter was 4 years old she got very sick and the doctors told us she would not survive. A curandera saved her life. Of course it works!”
Chef Solano shopped quickly but carefully, checking the quality of each herb and vegetable, observing what was freshest, inventing his menu as he went along. Finally, when all was selected, his heaped cart was drawn to the parking area by a woman barely strong enough to pull it. We returned to town. I was content knowing that later that day I would see the booty refashioned as great food.
Ecuador lives in the shadow of the ever more gastronomically popular Peru. But even in a small country not known for its cooking, there are culinary treasures to be discovered. Chefs like Juan Solano prove that it’s possible to showcase the best of Ecuador’s cooking heritage. The cuisine deserves more exploration. I’ll be back.
Nicholas Gilman is a founding member of a Mexican chapter of Slow Food International, the author of “Good Food in Mexico City: A Guide to Food Stalls, Fondas and Fine Dining” and served as editor and photographer for the book “Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler.” He has a website, goodfoodmexicocity.com and has appeared extensively on radio and TV in the U.S. and Mexico. He lives in Mexico City.
Top photo: Tiestos’ broiled shrimp. Credit: Nicholas Gilman
Slide show credit: Nicholas Gilman