The service ringer chimes once from the kitchen counter, and Juan Carlos Solano interrupts whatever he is doing – usually being the social butterfly – to take one of his “tiesto” platters to a hungry table. “I’ve personally met every single one of my clients”, he says with a half-serious smile. By now, I doubt he’s exaggerating. That’s because —and Juan Carlos Solano seems to know this well enough —it is he who makes the restaurant, the shining attraction and one of the main reasons why people love, absolutely love, the “dive” on Calle Juan Jaramillo.
Juan Carlos Solano clearly has a way with people. He’s funny, friendly, witty, and even if he’s stressed or annoyed, which any chef knows can occur any zillion times a night, he’s got the gift of humor to get him through. “No matter what my customers order, or shall I say, no matter what they “think” they’re ordering,” he confesses to me, “I serve whatever I want.” He laughs boisterously and goes on, “You know, this is the only restaurant where the customer is never right!”
It all seems to begin with the menu. It’s not only a tad difficult to understand if you’ve never eaten at Los Tiestos, it’s so exhaustively complete that the choice is really hard. And that’s probably on purpose: the perfect excuse for the chef to come by your table and not only decide what you’ll be eating for lunch or dinner, but what your party of four will be eating with you, desserts included.
Your first inkling, of course, is to look around. The restaurant is always packed. A reservation, or a good dose of luck, is your only ticket in. You may feel like the newbie at a raving party, but you’re also being given a chance to witness how dinners are supposed to be held, and how food is supposed to be enjoyed. You sense it, and can guess that the fun will come your way as well. And we don’t mean to be facetious: Tiestos is without a doubt the most entertaining culinary experience in Cuenca.
The central idea, apart from the phenomenon of having Juan Carlos Solano orchestrate your evening, is quite attractive in itself. “I wanted the experience to be like it is in big family dinners and luncheons. Everyone sharing, everyone passing the rice, the potatoes, the hot sauce around, the communal ritual of food, of eating food together”. The main dish, which is only to-be-shared between two to four people, is cooked on the serving plate —the “tiesto” —covered with a tajine-like ceramic top. The dish is revealed as the top comes off, the food sizzling inside, and the waiter, or Juan Carlos himself, witnessing the excitement of his guests, quick to serve an initial portion. You have some 6 hot sauces to sample, each delectable, some fruity, others punchy, and an equal number of accompaniments including salads, fries, rice, and semolina. You pass it all around, you enjoy the food as a group, you eat as a family, and you eat well. The result is that you fear your stomach waving a white flag to the copious quantities of food and that inevitable end to the party.
We forgot to say, of course, that the food is excellent. The meats cut like butter, the langoustines, a delectable manna, and the shrimp soup is half a heavenly invention, half testimony to the prowess of soup-making in Ecuador. All these culinary specialties you can enjoy as the kitchen huffs and puffs in the background for all to see. A delicious concept and experience, based on the essence of generosity, good food, and Cuenca sense of décor, simple ideas in restaurant design that get lost along the way, but are fabulously refreshing and worth the celebration. Juan Carlos certainly has it figured out.
Juan Jaramillo 7-34 y Presidente Borrero
(+593 7) 823-5310 / (+593) 987 233 063