By Stephen Vargha
In the last ten years, Cuenca has become more of an international city with its restaurants. A decade ago, the choices were very limited. Since then, the choices of food and drinks have exploded upon Cuenca’s culinary scene.
“When I came back to Cuenca from the United States almost a decade ago, I asked for a chai tea,” said Katherine Flores. “They gave me a tea bag! It was terrible. I decided it was time for good tea in Cuenca.”
Flores is the owner and founder of Télicioso Tea Room. The 33-year-old Cuencana’s background and experiences overseas led her to eventually open two places for people to enjoy high-quality teas and coffee.
“My grandmother always had fresh herbs in her garden,” said Flores. “She always made horchata for the whole family. It was served cold or hot, depending on the weather.”
Horchata is a traditional drink from southern Ecuador. Due to its great nutritional and medicinal properties, the drink was known as “curing water” or “remedial water.” It was prepared with flowers, fruits, and medicinal herbs. The drink has relaxing properties, and it does not contain tannins or caffeine.
That was just the beginning as Flores studied tourism at the University of Cuenca. Her first job after college lasted five years at a travel agency.
The Cuencano rounded out her education at Disney University in the United States, the global training program at The Walt Disney Company. The paid, semester-long internship program allows students to earn college credit at Disney’s parks and resorts through a combination of on-the-job experiences, shadowing, and seminars.
It is central Florida where Flores’ tea adventures began. “While in Orlando at a mall, I saw a tea shop and wondered what it was,” said Flores. “Then there was England (the United Kingdom Pavilion) at Epcot, and they were serving tea.”
Her tea tastings continued in the Big Apple. “In New York City, I saw a tea shop and went inside,” said Flores. “They served me some delicious Oolong tea.”
Enjoying quality tea had bitten Flores. Once back in Cuenca, she searched Instagram, a photo and video sharing social networking service. In 2016, she found a tea shop in Quito online, and went to the capital city. She ended up trying tea at various places in Quito before coming home to give it a go.
“I used Google to find someone who was selling quality tea,” said Flores. “I found the tea shop in New York City I visited to see where they were getting their fair-trade tea.”
Her source is a French importer based in New York City. “Because of them, I am able to bring in quality teas,” said Flores.
Télicioso Tea Room opened in 2016 on Calle Larga, near the Remigio Crespo Toral Museum. Most of the customers were foreign tourists visiting El Centro. Flores moved the tea room down the hill, close to the Inca Bar and Lounge.
“When we were opened on Paseo 3 de Noviembre, 70 percent of our customers were foreigners,” said Flores. “On Sundays, it was only foreigners, so we called it, International Sunday,” said Flores with a laugh.
Then the Covid pandemic arrived. “I thought that was the end,” said Flores.
With Ecuador’s borders closed, there were no more foreign visitors. “Because of Covid, our only customers were Cuencanos,” said Flores.
Télicioso Tea Room remained closed for six months, but the endless requests by customers asking her to reopen had it back in business in six months. “We tried delivery service at first, but our place is more for sitting down and enjoying a cup of tea or coffee,” said Flores.
The next location was outside of El Centro, on the south side of the city. It is an area that not everyone knows. “We opened in September 2020 in Santa Anita (barrio),” said Flores. “Since many people do not know where that is, we just say we are near ECU 911.”
When Télicioso Tea Room opened in Santa Anita, there was only a panadería (bakery) next door and Lacraft Beer Garden, which was a couple of blocks down the street.
Now, the area is a foodie’s heaven.
“The ice cream shop at Parque Santa Anita (Helados La Tienda) opened soon afterwards. A cake shop followed by the cheese shop (El Club Del Queso), then a store selling quality meats (Hamburgo Prime Meats). A Mexican restaurant (La Enfrijolada) opened followed by La Pizza de Juanja,” said Flores.
But there’s more.
“After that, a chocolate shop (Déjame Que Te Cuente Chocolatería Gourmet) opened up. Around the corner is a seafood restaurant (Tongas del Gordo). The meat store opened an El Salvadoran restaurant. The area is like a beautiful courtyard at the mall!”
Flores is thrilled with her neighborhood location that is across from Parque Santa Anita. “People told me I would make more money in a mall,” said Flores. “I do not like malls. This is the right location.”
Due to its location, the Santa Anita Télicioso Tea Room is mainly Cuencanos visiting it. In November 2021, Flores opened a second location in El Centro, on Simón Bolívar. That location is run by her brother. “We opened it because we really missed the foreigners,” said Flores.
The clientele can greatly vary. “There are days that it is all men in business suits,” said Flores. “Then there are days like today when it is all women.”
Many people don’t realize that “tea” became a generic term for beverages made from leaves. All types of tea began with the leaf from a single plant: Camellia sinensis, an evergreen tree native to Southeast Asia. There are two varieties, with one originating in China and the other in India.
Tea is the processed leaves of this plant, and it is part of a $10 billion-dollar worldwide industry. It is the second most popular drink in the world after water.
Tea is grown all over the world including Hawaii and South Carolina. The tea producing countries that consistently turn out the highest quality of tea are China, India, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan.
Télicioso Tea Room has the five main groups of tea which are black (the world’s most popular), green, Oolong, Pu’er, and white. “Red fruit tea is very popular,” said Flores. “Green tea, Jasmine, and Chai are also very popular.”
Recipes for Chai tea vary across India. It can differ from family to family in the same city, but the traditional ingredients of the spiced tea blend usually include black tea mixed with strong spices, like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and black peppercorns.
The tea room also serves Guayusa, which is not a true tea. Guayusa tea is a caffeinated herbal beverage commonly consumed in Latin America, particularly in Ecuador. In the U.S., it is often marketed as an alternative to coffee and energy drinks.
The infusion is made from the leaf of a holly tree (Ilex guayusa) that is native to the Amazon rainforest. It is estimated that over 98 percent of the Guayusa trees in the world are located in Ecuador.
Quality coffee is now served, too. Half of the coffee is supplied by Sinfonía Café. The other half of the coffee comes from a producer in the Yunguilla Valley, which is just southwest of Cuenca, in Azuay province. “The coffee is organic,” said Flores. “The coffee growers were customers of ours and wanted to sell it to us when we were located on Calle Larga.”
Both coffees are very popular, with each Télicioso Tea Room location having its customers prefer one over the other. Getting Cuencanos to enjoy gourmet coffee has been a journey for Flores.
“We have had to educate Cuencanos about quality coffee,” said Flores. “Most had only instant coffee before coming here.”
Quality teas and enjoyment are Flores’ goal. It is how her tea room got its name. “I wanted to use Kichwa, then I wanted to use my name,” said Flores. “I finally ended up using ‘tea’ and ‘delicious!’”
Télicioso Tea Room, Rafael Torres Beltrán 3-103 y Víctor León Vivar, Cuenca, 098-315-2726, https://www.teliciosotearoom.com/, Hours: Monday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3 p.m.-8 p.m.
Télicioso Tea Room, Simón Bolívar y Estévez de Toral, Cuenca, Hours: Monday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 3 p.m.-7:30 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.