La Yunta restaurant and store survives the pandemic and finds magic in its new Cuenca location
By Stephen Vargha
Owning the popular restaurant, La Yunta, was not the original goal of Sole Riquetti. Nor was it the long circuitous global route Riquetti took to end up at Ave. Primer De Mayo.
“My dad wanted me to learn English. I always hated English as a kid,” said Riquetti. “I learned French at the university instead.”
Riquetti thought she had avoided learning English despite her dad’s attempts. “He applied for a visa to the U.S. for me when I was 17 years old. It was rejected. Two years later, the U.S. rejected me because my uncle had burned a U.S. flag at a protest,” said Riquetti.
A third application was rejected, too. “I didn’t want to go to the U.S., so I was very happy,” said Riquetti. “So, Dad told me I was going to England, and I said, ‘What?’”
It was a lot more expensive than her dad thought it would be. “My dad sold his house and gave me 3,000 British Pounds for one year,” said Riquetti. “It was so costly that I spent it in just one month.”
One year later, the young Cuencano returned to Ecuador to Salesian Polytechnic University to get her master’s degree in human resources. That degree got Riquetti a job at General Tire (now Continental Tire) in Cuenca.
“The president could only speak German and English, so I was hired to help him with his Spanish,” said Riquetti. “I spent two years in human resources before I got tired of skirts and high heels and working 9 to 5.”
That led to her first foray into the services industry. “I decided to open a cultural center called, Tinqu. It means ‘a place to meet’ in Quechua. The center had art exhibitions, dance presentations and more,” said Riquetti. “I had it for one year before I decided to go back to England.”
She ended up working for a British student exchange company. It gave her a job in Buenos Aires, Argentina, before Riquetti ended up back in England, where she took linguistic classes as well as classes for two years for wine and spirits.
“It was supposed to be for only six months, but it ended up being five years,” said Riquetti. “That is when I met my future husband, Jim.”
It was happenstance that she met Jim at Luzborough, a 16th century pub in Romsey, in southern England. “I was going there every afternoon to study. The pub is on the way to Jim’s mother’s house,” said Riquetti. “He stopped at the pub because his mom was not home.”
He ended up buying Riquetti some tea and of course, he got a pint of Guinness. They dated for a few months before Riquetti moved back to Buenos Aires to further her education.
“That is when Jim messaged me to see if I would agree if he got a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires. He gave me his credit card number so I could purchase the airline ticket,” said Riquetti. “I agreed so Jim told his mother that he was going to Switzerland to go skiing as he went there a lot.”
The credit card company rejected the purchase and called his home to verify if the charge was legitimate. His mom answered the phone call. When Jim got home, both his mother and sister asked him if there was anything he wanted to tell them.
Jim replied in the negative. “How about Buenos Aires?” they both asked.
Reciting this story today, both Sole and Jim laugh. They ended up together in Argentina. It became too expensive to live there so they moved to Cuenca in December 2009. Two months later, Jim proposed. And four months later, they were married.
Returning to the service industry, Riquetti became the beverage manager at a El Centro hotel for six months before being hired by Licor Cristal, a Cuenca sugarcane distillery.
A surprise pregnancy quickly ended that job. And in April 2011, Riquetti and her husband opened their first restaurant, located just southwest of Cuenca on the Pan-American Highway.
“We wanted to open a place in the countryside as it is on the way to Nabón, where my grandparents’ farm was,” said Riquetti. “Besides good Ecuadorian food, we wanted to sell items that people would need such as furniture and clothing.”
In the back of the restaurant was a huge and lush garden with donkeys, llamas, and rabbits. It became a very popular place for visitors to La Yunta.
The name, La Yunta, came about for its meaning. It is a yoke joining two bulls to work together. It balances the burden and makes it easier to manage. “Two bulls working together to plant seeds,” said Riquetti.
In 2016, La Yunta started doing day tours as supplemental income. “We began with garden tours. It was very popular, so I started doing tours to Nabón,” said Riquetti. “It became money to grow the business.”
La Yunta was out in the country for nine years before the Covid pandemic struck. “We tried to sell all of our things,” said Riquetti. “We looked at going back to England, but things started to reopen in July 2020.”
That is when a family Riquetti was friends with told her about their place on Primero de Mayo. After a month of renovations, La Yunta was in business again.
“It is a very nice place. It has a bit of magic to it,” said Riquetti. “The place used to be a maternity clinic. There is a lot of energy here. That is why it is so magical.”
Part of that magic is the two beautiful and inviting indoor gardens where one can eat. It was not originally part of the plans.
“One of my three best Gringo friends, who I call the ‘Gringo Mafia,’ loves plants and she told me we needed two gardens. I told her that was an impossibility as it would cost $1,000,” said Riquetti. “The next thing I knew, there was a truck full of plants pulled up to the restaurant’s door. It had come from my friends.”
Along with renovations to the building, the menu was revamped. “It was all Ecuadorian food before, but now it is a mix,” said Riquetti.
Fish and chips are one of their most popular dishes. Many expats think it is some of the best they’ve had. “Jim is very fussy about the fish and chips,” said Riquetti.
Riquetti’s mother’s chicken pot pie is also on the menu. “It is important to not lose those traditions. We need to keep them,” said Riquetti. “We want traditional food, not fancy food as we are not going to put 12 years into the trash for fancy food. Ecuadorian food is popular so we will continue to sell it.”
Because of that, the clientele is half Ecuadorian and half Gringos. Many are very loyal.
“On Sundays, it is pretty much people over 70 years of age as they come here to eat food they grew up on,” said Riquetti. There are some who eat at the same table every Sunday. If it is not available, they wait until it is.”
The restaurant’s store was brought back as well as a small hard-to-find food items tienda off to the side. Handmade products from families in the coastal community of Dos Mangas, in Santa Elena province, are for sale in La Yunta.
“The people we work with are not very educated, but they are very talented. Each family has a specialty,” said Riquetti. “There are things such as hummingbirds, textiles, and placemats. The placemats are made from banana trees that have been cut down. Instead of burning the trees, they recycle the material for placemats.”
Though Riquetti is the owner, it seems that her dad is in charge at times. “One time, Dad brought a truck full of antiques and he told me to sell them,” said Riquetti. “I asked him why, and he told me that the families needed the money. So, I did.”
It is now a common thing. “When Dad comes to Cuenca with a car full of stuff, I ask him how much,” said Riquetti. “He is happy to give money to that community.”
A unique part of La Yunta is their book exchange. “If you do not have a book, take one and bring it back when you’re finished reading it,” said Riquetti.
Or you can just come in for the good food and ambiance.
La Yunta, Av. Primero de Mayo y Av. de las Américas, Cuenca, 098-945-6551, https://www.facebook.com/la.yunta.3/, Hours: Open every day of the year, Monday-Saturday: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s new book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats. His blog, “Becoming Cuenca,” supplements his book with the latest information.