The sweeter side of Quito: Heladeria San Agustin

07/Septiembre/2012 | 17:16

By Lance Brashear

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To find a restaurant in Quito older than Heladeria San Agustin one would have to go back to the days of the Spanish colony.


Sitting just across from the San Agustin Convent on Guayaquil Street, from which it acquired its name, the San Agustin Heladeria and restaurant has been in business continually since 1858. 

Think about that for a moment.  The heladeria, or ice cream shop, began only 36 years after present-day Ecuador won independence from Spain. 

As many years as it has been serving ice cream, amazingly, San Agustin is only half as old as the house in which it sits, evidenced by the thick walls - more than a meter in width - and the absence of windows on the first floor - a design not of this century or the last.

Heladeria San Agustin has grown steadily, both in size and products, since it first opened.

Owner Yolanda Alvarez says the business has been in her family since her grandmother purchased it from the original owner in 1905. Three years later she bought the entire house.  The family lived upstairs while customers were served downstairs.

Today, though, the restaurant occupies all three floors of the house and sometimes even that is not enough.  “During certain times of the year, such as holidays, we don’t have enough room,” says Alvarez.

In the beginning San Agustin sold only a few products.  “There was ice cream made in a paila and salpicones,”says Alvarez.  “Salpicon is a thick juice made with shaved ice,” a tradition they still maintain today with one of the original flavors, naranjilla.

They also had some of their traditional sweets which fill the glass-encased sliding doors near the entrance: quesadillas, aplanchados, moncaibas, biscochos, and chimborazos - white-frosted cupcakes named after Ecuador’s highest, snow-capped volcano.

Alvarez’s grandmother passed away in 1920 and her mother eventually took charge of the shop.  “She introduced new things, she was a very active woman,” she says of her mother.  “She was the first to bring Universal chocolates (a well-known brand) from Guayaquil and she sold them here.  My mom also introduced coffee and sandwiches.”

But one of the biggest products that remain immensely popular today is the ceviche.  People can be seen eating ceviche starting at 10am in the morning. 

“We are well known for ceviche because my uncle was owner of the Hotel Majestic (site of today’s Hotel Plaza Grande),” says Alvarez.  She explains that the hotel had ceviche first, but, “My mother learned how to make ceviches and began to offer them here.”  That was in 1950.

Though fresh seafood had been coming to the coast for decades aboard the train, Alvarez says that refrigeration arrived only at mid-century.  “We did not have freezers.  They came along when I was ten years old in 1948.  There were none in Quito so she went to buy one in Guayaquil.”

The next major change to the menu was the addition of other traditional plates, particularly “seco de chivo,” a typical dish of goat meat, when cholera came to Ecuador 30 years ago.  “There was fear of eating seafood without cooking [well].  More or less in 1980 cholera came and we began to offer seco de chivo.”

Once the health concerns subsided, ceviche would take its former place as the most requested dish on the menu, sitting alongside other national plates.

When Alvarez’s mother passed away in 1983 her brothers and sisters began to administer the place until 1994 when one suggested they sell it. 

“I did not want to,” says Alvarez.  She took over the operation until a few years ago when she began training her grandson, Andres Chaguaro – the only family member interested in preserving the family tradition.  He is now general manager and can sit down over a cup of coffee to tell you everything about the restaurant and its history, including the coffee you are drinking, which is called “café pasado.”

“This is coffee from the colonial era when there were no machines.  You use aluminum filters [with ground coffee] and allow the hot water to pass through.  It is like an old-fashioned espresso.”  He shows the filter.  It looks as old as San Agustin itself.

Today, though the San Agustin Heladeria is a full-fledged restaurant, it is still best known for all that is sweet.  Chaguaro says they have more than sixty traditional snacks offered throughout the year.

And with their proximity to the convent across the way, San Agustin offers traditional sweets that correspond to the liturgical calendar throughout the year.  During Easter, pan de pasqua and dulce de durazno are prepared.  Christmas is a time for arroz con leche and buñuelos.  And for first communions - popular during the early summer months - dulce de leche is frequently requested.

But ice cream continues to be the daily demand because at San Agustin it is prepared traditionally, in a paila, or large copper pot sitting atop a bed of ice and mixed by hand.  According to Alvarez  “helados de paila” are the reason they are still around.

“Our secret has been tradition – how it was done before, in a paila.”

San Agustin is located on the west side of Guayaquil Street between Mejia and Chile.  They offer ten flavors of ice cream: chocolate, blackberry, uvilla, coconut, coffee, maracuya, strawberry, milk, guanabana, and taxo.   One scoop, $1.25, two scoops, $2.00.



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