The sweeter side of Quito - Helados de Paila at Cafe Plaza Grande

22/Junio/2012 | 16:41



By Lance Brashear

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They are an odd sight even when expected.  The cucuruchos –dressed in purple robes, masked from head to toe, and wearing a large cone on their head – are part of Quito’s Easter, celebratory tradition.  The cones are a sign of humility; purple, the color of penitence.  

Those who wear them during Easter do so as an act of faith, but those who wear them throughout the year are probably serving ice cream at the Café Plaza Grande in the heart of old town – the only place you can get a traditional “helado de paila” served by a cucurucho.

Though a religiously, symbolic figure, the cucurucho in Quito has taken on popular recognition – part of the city’s intangible heritage, or the patrimony that you cannot exactly touch, but which helps define the character of this old, colonial town.  He might seem out of place serving ice cream, unless of course, it is a special kind of ice cream.

Helados de paila are another intangible part of Ecuador’s patrimony – a traditional, frozen treat made in large, copper pots.  The recipes are simple: fruit, water, and sugar, spun, as if on a frozen turntable, until the sweet liquid mixture becomes solid.  Traditional flavors include some of the country’s iconic fruits: mango, taxo, guanabana, blackberry, and naranjilla, the last three of which are served up at Café Plaza Grande, mixed with additional fruits, cookies, and a “suspiro” on top.

Helados de Paila is a tradition that was born in Imbabura Province, also the birthplace of Fabian Huertas, head chef of Café Plaza Grande.  He has traveled the world over and now calls Quito and the Plaza Grande Hotel his home where he oversees all three of the hotel’s restaurants.  It is only at the Café Plaza Grande, though, where national cuisine is served alongside memories of old, Quito. 

The Plaza Grande Hotel is the site of the old Hotel Majestic, Quito’s original luxury hotel on the northwest corner of Independence Plaza.  It still retains a look from yesteryear – classical, yet comfortable.  “Older people come in and they tell us they used to eat here with their grandfather or their father,” says Huertas. 

Because so many old-timers know it from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, the hotel today tries to maintain all of the familiar foods from the menu half a century ago.  “What we try to promote and offer at this restaurant are the things that were offered when this was the Hotel Majestic,” says Huertas, like their famous cheese sandwich served with warm honey, empanadas de morocho, and ceviche. 

“We serve all kinds of national food, typical, from the coast and the Andes,”  From locros and caldos,  to seco de chiva and lechon, to the typical rosero beverage made with four fruits, corn, and a touch of vanilla, it all goes down nicely for locals as well as visitors to the capital city.

And for dessert, diners have half a dozen selections.  Huertes says customers love the “espumilla,” a local merengue treat that is as popular, or even more so, than the helados de paila.  But the espumilla is not served by a cucurucho.  That is reserved only for the ice cream.  Most don’t know that, however, and diners are surprised by the additional touch when they order the ice cream. 

When a purple-robed cone head stands before them with the dry ice running along their table, it is a memory of a lifetime and one more reason to come back.

“Families come to eat and they order the helado de paila and those who don’t know are surprised and those that do know, bring the family….they take photos and put them on facebook,” says Huertas.

And for the enjoyment of two national treasures – the cucurucho and helado de paila – the Café Plaza Grande has priced it just right.  For the old, Majestic customers who remember how things were paid for in the 20th century before all those devaluations and the appearance of the U.S. dollar as the official currency: with sucres.

The Café Plaza Grande does not accept sucres, the old currency of Ecuador, but it converts prices at the very old rate of 5 sucres per dollar.  And if 34.50 sucres seems a little high for a step back in time and a taste of traditional heritage, Café Plaza Grande goes one step further making the dessert big enough for two.

Though it is an odd combination of nostalgia, somehow it seems not so out of place - the prices in sucres, the cucurucho in June, and the classical atmosphere that awaits you at the corner of the Plaza Grande. 

If you would like to be served by a cucurucho, the Café Plaza Grande is open daily as part of the Hotel Plaza Grande.  For more information or reservations at any of their three restaurants, including Café Plaza Grande, call the hotel at 251-077. 


Ciudad Quito

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lbrashear - en Diario HOY - Noticias de Ecuador.