Wining On: Arepa, Bogotá, Colombia

Said a mate with a boyfriend from Bogotá: “I don’t get how Buenos Aires isn’t teeming with Colombian restaurants considering how many Colombians live here.”

He’s got a point. A country known for its addictive coffee, exotic fruits (ergo fresh juices and smoothies) and arepas — corn-based patties that look like a cross between an English muffin and a pancake — as well as fabulously fresh fish dishes and ceviches from the northern coastal region, should have more than a handful of establishments in a capital city such as Buenos Aires.

Once again, it comes back down to numbers, and apparently my forecast of a handful was overly ambitious: there are just two. A pair! And freshly tanned (although now peeling) after a whirlwind tour of Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena, I can tell you there are more Argentine-fashioned steakeries in those three cities than you can shake a stick at. That’s a trade imbalance if ever I saw one.

And now for a whirling dervish-like spin through the culinary highlights foisted upon me over this past week. Veritably stuffed with airplane food — I only remember making a concerted effort to avoid the “pasta” for breakfast, lunch and dinner, on advice from a friend who recently travelled with the same airline, TAM, and had the limpest, most tasteless load of fusilli she’d ever had), capital Bogotá stood out for its street food.

On a road trip of sorts with my mother and her friend, we decided to wander around Bogotá’s old town, La Candelaria. Tired, fending off drizzle and unable to handle the altitude, we jumped in a bright yellow cab to head to the square which houses the Gold Museum. From there we dived into a bar, a booze-only establishment, no snacks for sale, and even I was surprised at how much beer the Colombians had racked up for an early Friday evening. Empties left on the table, it’s a nifty way for staff to keep count of consumption, although I wouldn’t put it past some sneaky nationalities to try and shove a few down their trousers (and I include both the Brits and the Argentines in this sneakiness).

A bottle of Poker lager later, we took on the drizzle again, thirst quenched but bellies rumbling. Apart from the perros, which made me titter with glee (the regressive child in me saying “look mum, they really call them hot dogs here!”), there were little carts all around the square, selling burgers, hot dogs and what I really, really wanted: arepas.

“A sausage one for me, please” and a quick flame-grilled warm-up and 3,000 pesos later (Colombian ones, worth about US$1.50) I was happily chomping down the northern South American version of a choripán. With the lady vendor slathering the corny crepe in butter, it was simply delicious, and more so after bland food ingested at 10,000 metres. (I had forgotten my trick of ordering a meal for “special needs” ahead of the flight, which often turns out to be a tasty salmon steak.)

Another meal of particular note was at Watakushi, a Japanese fusion-style restaurant in the Chapinero neighbourhood. Mother and friend had never even heard of ceviche, so they were intrigued when I ordered it. “But this is wonderful!” the mother said, enthused. “I want to make this for my birthday party.” And after a few lame ceviches in Buenos Aires of late, I was reminded of just how good raw white fish marinated in lime juice can be, and why I love it.

In Medellín, what was was surprising was the phenomenal number of varied eating options. Although we were staying in the higher end of town, by which I mean the El Poblado neighbourhood, there was Thai, Peruvian, Japanese and even an English import. Now I can’t see that happening in Argentina for a while…

The eye-catching frozen yogurt store Snog (eye-catching for its twinkling ceiling lights as well as its in-your-face name) seemed like a revelation to me. Perhaps I need to get out more but green-tea flavour frozen yogurt slathered with the toppings of my choice (fresh mango in this case) was fresh, tasty and I felt innovation bursting all over my tongue. And this was after eating a Thai curry.

Of course it was all about the catch of the day, accompanied by fried plantains and coconut rice, and any kind of fish for that matter in the north. Marooning myself on a island just off Cartagena for a night, my dinner options beside my hammock were a medium-size fish, or a large fish. Erring on the side of caution, I opted for mid-size and it was still half of a rather large catch which made it to my plate. Fried so deeply, and jolly delicious it was too, the trick is to eat the crunchy bits of skin hanging off, which you might not ordinarily touch had the fish been nicely grilled. Delicious.

And being the good tourist I am, I decided to take us to a guidebook-recommended restaurant in Cartagena’s Old Town, which reached a certain amount of fame for featuring on celebrity chef Antony Bourdain’s TV programme. Pulling up a street seat around the corner from a bustling square, La Cevichería was serving up the classic dish, and been heralded for its variations. Ordering the three-sample starter, all I could really taste was the fact that a load of ketchup had been shoved into the limey mix. A bit of a letdown really, and not hugely innovative.

So where to get the Colombian flavours in Buenos Aires? Back on home turf, one of the two options (and some further research from the Colombian boyfriend indicates that this might now be the only option).
Just this past weekend, it seems a new joint is about to open on Honduras in Palermo Hollywood, called Colombia Mía or something similar (I was burning past on my bike) and for a better-than-decent cup of Joe, the word on the street is Chacarita’s Full City, an Anglo-Colombian enterprise with a charming patio, freshly made arepas, a decent brunch menu for under 30 pesos although it doesn’t open on Sundays, and coffee beans direct from the owner’s dad back home.

And so it was to Tribunales’ Los Recuerdos for a memory refresher. Warned that it was a bit of a hole in the wall, no matter. I’m not scared. With arepa options including cheese, chicken and egg on the menu as breakfast options, what did excite me were the juices going past to other tables. Lulo is a fruit I tried in its juicy liquid format, white and frothing, not too sweet or sour, a really refreshing drink. But I chose some kind of lemonade whirring around in a large vat for some reason, and while it was fine, on a second visit I’d go straight for a lulo juice.

Deciding to share a large classic dish, Sophie and I tucked into the bandeja paisa, a traditional meat-and-rice dish. While the beans were tasty, the rice cooked well, the shredded beef didn’t look terribly appetizing so we left most of it. However, what was utterly delicious and a surefire way to induce a heart attack was the pork crackling. We polished every last crunchy, fatty artery-clogging piece of chicharrón.

But overall, I wasn’t transported back to Colombia. With friendly service, and abundant dishes to share for just 60 pesos, I will head back next time I find myself in Tribunales, and hopefully not in court — but try something else for sure.

Los Recuerdos
Uruguay 943, Tribunales
Tel: 4811-3302

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