There is nothing about El Rincón de las Humitas that would call attention to the average passerby. A small restaurant of a dozen wooden tables with picnic benches, located on a random street of the labyrinth that the town of Tumbaco has become. No one would give it a second look. In fact, my awareness of its existence is happily serendipitous.
It all came through on an emergency search for good, cheap humitas; my sister has a restaurant and needed a large quantity of humitas – in case you are wondering, humitas are traditional Ecuadorian corn cakes, steamed in corn leaves and served usually with coffee in the afternoon, they look like this – and the waitress who works for her suggested she tried a place that was famous around where she lives; el Rincón de las Humitas. Sure enough, the corner of humitas lived up to its reputation, and in a matter of a day they became the official supplier of humitas for the restaurant Amaranto.
My sister took me along the next time she was placing an order for a special occasion in which to delight costumers with the traditional humitas and quimbolitos – sweet versions of the corn cakes. It was a rainy afternoon, usually a sign for bad business for restaurants around Tumbaco. Yet outside El Rincón de las Humitas was a snaking queue of people waiting for a table at the little joint. I couldn’t believe anyone would wait out in the rain to eat in what looked like – no offense – a perfectly mundane place. I decided I would have to come back and try it for myself.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this well-run eatery is that they don’t in fact have a kitchen. Most of the food, including the humitas and quimbolitos, arrive prepared and steaming every afternoon from the magical kingdom of humitas, surely. On the front corner of the two-room restaurant, right next to the door, there is a display case and behind it a small gas stove stacked next to a sink. The stove is used to fry the llapingachos that accompany most of the main dishes, though the potatoes come seasoned and smashed, the cook just has to make the paddies and put them in a frying pan.
I took a couple of accomplices for my culinary exploration. We ordered humitas, of course, and hot chocolate, which comes with pieces of fresh cheese to drop into the sweet beverage – may not sound like your cup of tea, but believe me, it will be. There is an energy in this place that is hard to describe; about seven people work in plating, serving, washing, serving, cooking, serving, clearing and serving. We were lucky enough not to have to wait more than five minutes for a table, and as soon as one cleared up a young girl cleaned it up and took our order. There’s no menu, the waitress just informs you of the entrees for that evening: seco de pollo, guatita, empanadas de viento, quimbolitos, morocho, among a few others.
The patrons of this place come for dinner, something between restaurant food and good homey comfort. They come with their families, their boyfriend or their work colleague. They don’t come to sit around or to have a chat, they come to eat. It is, in a sense, fast food, but only because the service is fantastically efficient and the food is the kind you can’t eat slowly. After we ate our humitas we needed another excuse to stick around a bit longer, so we order a “completo”: three gargantuan llapingachos under a thin slice of fried steak, decorated with a couple of fried eggs on top, all accompanied with red beat salad, fresh avocado, and a good portion of encebollado; that is, onion and tomato salad. Had I tried to order this by myself I would have struggled to eat half of the plate. To be fair, though, I probably would have cleaned up anyway and walked away with a belly ache.
It’s places like this that make the whole of Ecuador a continuous food adventure. As long as one is willing to try, there are always new places, of every price range, description and taste, to delight one’s palate.