Just across the Plaza San Francisco is a small, unassuming restaurant that would be very easy to pass by, but it would be a mistake. It stands in an ancient building, faced with stone quarried from the slopes of the Volcano Pichincha, built when Quito was a colony of Spain, about 500 years ago. The top floor of the building is painted a sunny yellow trimmed in white, and the roof is traditional red tile. Facing the building, the restaurant occupies the second doorway from the right. Outside is small sign advertising their name, La Hueca de Cantuña, and the offerings of the day. Lunch is a mere $2.50 if you buy the menu del día. It’s what most of the locals will be eating! But you can choose from other offerings as well, including a speciality of the house, yamor, a drink made from seven different types of corn. It is usually only found around Otavalo and then only in September.
This local treasure is where my husband and I find ourselves eating breakfast on many a Saturday morning. My favorite dish? Humitas, a type of corn bread steamed in corn husks or banana leaves, but scrambled or friend eggs and bread baked with fresh cheese aren’t half bad either. The juice is always fresh pressed. Marcelo and his family take pride in using the freshest possible produce and ingredients, all without chemicals or additives.
The coffee is uniquely Quiteño – cups of hot milk or hot water are brought to the table where a small cruet holding a liquid looking something like balsamic vinegar is used to flavor your beverage. It’s actually essence of coffee, thick and dark like syrup. You can make your morning cup of joe as strong or as weak as you like.
On our last visit, I decided to ask owner and host, Marcelo Mendez, if I could conduct a short interview and he was thrilled to answer my questions. He and his family have been running the restaurant for the last five years. It was a lot of hard work renovating the space, especially repairing walls made of one meter thick adobe. Marcelo’s family originally comes from Otavalo. He followed his children to Quito when they entered the University. Running a small business has been a family tradition and thus, La Hueca de Cantuña was born.
You may remember the name Cantuña from a legend I’ve shared before – he is a near mythical figure in Quiteño lore. Cantuña made a pact with the devil in order to finish building the atrium for the Catedral San Francisco. From the tables just inside the restuarant it is possible to look across the plaza and see the Capilla de Cantuña across the way.
The word hueca literally means a gap or space though in some dialects it can be a way to call someone shallow or superficial. The restaurant is tucked away in a small space but in Quito, a hueca is also a special gathering place where locals come together not only to share food, but to share time and thoughts and ideas. They’ll sit and discuss politics and poetry while enjoying an afternoon coffee or chocolate de Ambato. According to Marcelo, a hueca is a private spot, often small, hidden and not well known. I feel like we’ve found one of the best kept secrets in a town, a place in the center of tourism but so descretely places that it’s easy to walk on by. Consider yourself in on one of the best kept secrets in Quito.