Clockwise from the top left corner: carne asada, fried chicken, crispy pork belly, fried plantain, sausage, and fried cassava. Fried egg, rice, arepa, potatoes, beans, and avocado in the center.
It’s a large plate, draped with a plantain leaf, atop which sits a stunning variety of foods. There are rice and stewed pinto beans, and potatoes. The rice is topped with a fried egg, encircled on one side by fried plantain, on the other by pork belly, a half-ring of fat with crispy red morsels of meat protruding like gear spokes. Beside the pork there’s fried chicken, beyond that carne asada. There’s a charred sausage link, a couple pieces of fried cassava (a.k.a. yucca), a wedge of avocado, and, because this is a Colombian meal, a grilled piece of arepa, the nation’s traditional corn flour bread (not to be confused with corn bread), here about the size and consistency of a dense biscuit.
3695 University Avenue, San Diego
I’m sitting in the welcoming City Heights restaurant Sabores Colombianos, a small, well-lit space, sparsely decorated with Colombian cultural artifacts and photos of plates featuring traditionally prepared meat, fish, and fowl.
Consulting my Colombian waiter, and those photos, I’ve gone ahead and ordered the restaurant’s priciest plate: the 20-dollar Fiambre Valluno (most entrees top out at $15). I take it this translates to “Valluno picnic,” the word Valluno referring to something or someone from the Valle de Cauca, which sits between the Andes and the Pacific on Colombia’s southwest coast.
This would make quite a picnic, and makes me wonder if maybe we’re not doing it right on this side of the Panama Canal?
A pair of Colombian gentlemen at the next table nod their approval, as they continue their own leisurely meal, comprising seemingly endless small plates, featuring all manner of corn-flour based Colombian antojitos and meat items, including that arc of pork, which they eat one spoke at a time, tearing it off by hand.
It’s tasty, of course. Aside from the rice and cassava, every component on my plate is rich with flavor. There’s savory saltiness of the beef, pork, and chicken, which doesn’t resemble the Southern, battered and fried chicken I’m accustomed too — this small breast is so thoroughly fried its skin has become crackling, the flesh within pulling apart into dry yet delicate strands.
That sausage, an earthier Colombian descendent of Spain’s chorizo, offers a darker and smokier paprika. The carne asada — a lean, seasoned cut of flank steak — had enough salt to make me truly appreciate the sweet presence of the fried plantain. Making this one of those rare occasions I’ve truly enjoyed the banana relative. Both it and the cassava have an almost pasty dryness, more so than potatoes, but the contrast worked given the amount of meat I’m consuming.
The beef’s a tad over salted today, and the egg over fried (a runnier yolk would have added something to my gluttony), but I’m otherwise pretty satisfied with my choice of lunch, and the inevitable leftovers. Despite the vast assortment on this platter, I’ve only scratched the surface of this place, and Colombian cuisine in general. I’ll have to return to try the sobrebarriga (steamed flank steak), and bistec a la criolla, which features South America’s answer to pico de gallo.