It was my third time eating in Diego’s restaurant, La Caleta, but the first time with my notebook and pen accompanying me. Diego opened La Caleta earlier this year, on March 24th. La Caleta is located at Estevez de Toral 8-17 and Mariscal Sucre. It was one of the first restaurants I ate at after moving to Cuenca. The beginning of my journey in Ecuador and the beginning of La Caleta coincided nearly to the day.
We came in on a Friday night at 7:00pm. Diego was finishing up a few things before joining us at our table for the evening. Diego stands tall and has an amiable and easy-going presence. If you observe Diego, it is evident that he has great passion for what he is doing and takes pride in his restaurant. This is evident if you listen to what he has to say as well:
Nichole: Why did you open this restaurant?
Diego: The kitchen is my laboratory. I play in my kitchen every day and it makes me happy. I love creating dishes and then conversing with the people and hearing them say “This is delicious!”
Nichole: In addition to being the owner, you are the chef here, correct? Have you trained all of your employees to cook each dish?
Diego: Yes, they all can cook every dish on the menu. All of the guys working in the kitchen are studying culinary arts at San Isidro.
I learned that San Isidro is also where Diego studied for 3 years. The theme of La Caleta is traditional Ecuadorian cuisine and culture. The restaurant is not very big, containing around 8 tables. The atmosphere is clean and modern, yet warm. There are shelves around the restaurant displaying Ecuadorian books and cultural figurines.
Nichole: What does the décor in here mean to you?
Diego: All of the books I have displayed are mine, they are all traditional and modern books about Ecuador. With the décor on the shelves, I want to show people the traditional culture of Ecuador.
Diego stood up to bring me a few of the figurines, the chola and cholo Cuencanos, the Diablo Huma, the Venus Valdivia, a clay hornado, as well as a few others. After sharing their stories with me, he carefully placed each one of them back in their designated homes on the shelves.
Our food was brought to the table. Diego told me that his favorite thing on the menu is the Langostinos la Caleta, but since I had eaten those here before I wanted to try something new. I ordered the Cuy (guinea pig vacuum cooked for 18 hours and baked with Ecuadorian spices, chaucha potatoes in a peanut sauce, stone cooked corn patty, and a fresh salad). Steve ordered the Churras (delicate beef tenderloin vacuum cooked and grated in Ecuadorian sauce, potatoes, fresh salad, eggs, and avocado).
The first thing you notice when your food is brought to you at La Caleta is the dazzling presentation. The amazing flavors of high quality cuisine is what will follow this initial impression. The dazzling presentation I mention is actually very important to Diego.
Nichole: What makes La Caleta different than other restaurants in Cuenca?
Diego: I take traditional dishes and I make them better. The presentation of our dishes makes us unique and is different each time depending on what is fresh that day. I want people to look at my dishes and think – wow, this is the best in Cuenca.
Nichole: You said the presentation is different for each dish every time depending on what is fresh. Where do you get your ingredients?
Diego: I get all of my ingredients from the Feria Libre market. I go there every Tuesday morning at 6:00am and get the ingredients for the week. Everything is always fresh. When I need cuy (guinea pig), I order it 2 days in advance from a local man and he collects and prepares the cuy for me in those 2 days, so it will be as fresh as possible.
I was excited to hear about Diego’s weekly market trips and completely fresh ingredients. Back to what makes La Caleta different:
Nichole: Where do you get your influence and inspiration?
Diego: My mother, my grandmother, my hometown, and the food in restaurants or on the street. I see traditional food being sold from a street vendor and I want to make it my creation, I want to make it better.
Diego is from the small town of Cochancay, Ecuador. He learned a lot about cooking from his mother and his grandmother and also from local restaurants there. In his time studying at San Isidro, he travelled to Esmeraldas to talk with people in the streets and in restaurants. This is something he likes to do, it gives him ideas and inspiration. After he finished at San Isidro, he continued traveling throughout Ecuador and conversing with people to learn and get ideas. Based on his stories and also on how he interacts with the guests in his restaurant, it is obvious that Diego enjoys making connections with people.
Nichole: Why did you choose the name, La Caleta?
Diego: In Spanish, we use this word to mean “home”.
Diego wanted the word home to represent his restaurant and I don’t think he could have picked a more appropriate name. He takes joy in creating masterpieces in the kitchen and exchanging stories with his guests while they savor his food. His open and caring personality makes you feel right at home in his restaurant.
After traveling around Ecuador, collecting ideas and inspiration, he spent 5 months in Philadelphia, USA. His sister and brother-in-law live there. He worked from 8:00am-6:00pm in construction and spent his nights working in a restaurant. He was saving money to open La Caleta.
Diego: It was very hard work but every day I was only thinking about opening my restaurant back in Cuenca.
Diego is thinking of going back to Philadelphia next summer for only a couple of months, he enjoys the culture there and he would like to save more money.
Soon after he returned from Philadelphia, he opened La Caleta.
Diego: We have now been open for 7 months. Business was slow in the beginning, with the earthquake, the airport closing, and various other factors, but it has really been picking up recently.
I have no doubt that his business will continue to flourish. His passion is admirable and his food is delicious. I have been to La Caleta 4 times now and each time the atmosphere, service, food presentation, and dishes have been nothing less than exquisite.
I am happy that Diego decided to share his passion and a piece of what he calls home, La Caleta, with Cuenca.