If you want to understand Quito culture, the best place to start is in a hueca. These are small, unassuming, mom & pop style restaurants and cafes. They are super popular within their own neighborhoods. If they aren’t full at lunchtime, then they haven’t reached hueca status even if they use the term in their name!
These little restaurants are such a big deal in Quito that the local newspaper publishes a map of some of the best in town! We didn’t use a map to find our favorite. We just got lucky one day.
The Best Hueca in Quito
Just across the Plaza San Francisco is a small, unassuming restaurant that would be very easy to pass by. It stands in an ancient Spanish-colonial building faced with stone quarried from the slopes of the Pichincha Volcano. The top floor of the building is painted a sunny yellow trimmed in white and the roof is traditional red tile.
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! On the other hand, you can choose from other offerings, including a speciality of the house, yamor, a drink made from seven different grains. This festival drink is hard to find outside of Otavalo and then it is only available in September.
Breakfast at La Hueca de Cantuña
La Hueca de Cantuña is a Quito treasure where my husband and I find ourselves eating breakfast on many a Saturday morning. My favorite dish? Humitas, a type of cornbread steamed in corn husks or banana leaves. But if cornbread isn’t your style, the scrambled or fried 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 – the waitress brings your choice of hot milk or hot water to the table. She will also leave a small cruet full of a dark liquid that looks like balsamic vinegar. It’s actually essence of coffee, a thick and dark syrup made early that morning in a stove-top espresso maker. Simply pour the dense liquid into your steaming hot milk to have a cafe con leche. In water, it’s more like an Americano. You can make your morning cup of joe as strong or as weak as you like. Try not to shock the staff by pouring the whole cruet into a single cup all at once, however. That’s only a move a gringo would make.
A Family Run Business
On our last visit, I decided to ask owner and host, Marcelo Mendez, if I could conduct a short interview. Lucky for us, 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 Iglesia San Francisco. From the tables just inside the restaurant, it is possible to look across the plaza and see the Capilla de Cantuña across the way.
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 Quito, a hueca in the center of tourism but so discretely placed that it’s easy to walk on by. Consider yourself in on one of the best-kept secrets in the city.
If you would like to see a few other Quito huecas, check out my article on Culture Trip. It’s a compilation of my friends’ favorite places to eat!