Dispatches from Colombia: Keeping It (Life and Tasty Treats) Simple

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Dispatches from Colombia: Keeping It (Life and Tasty Treats) Simple

The hard-working folks at the International Aphorism Factory came up with a handy dandy expression: “Keep it simple, stupid.” That works, mostly. In my experience, folks who depend on extravagance and spectacle have an addiction with no upper limit. One pleasure must top another, or even pleasures get booooring.

We keep it simple here in Colombia. A peaceful walk with my lovely fiancé through our Santa Barbara neighborhood satisfies the soul far more than any mission to the mall or a nerve-wracking escapade in that malevolent amoeba called Bogotá traffic. When the stroll leads to something tasty … why, simple pleasures really do seem best.

I offer here seven heavens—a week of delicious food and drink rewards we share at the end of short walks through our own little ‘hood here in this big, big city. Do you also have simple pleasures just a walk away? Why not share those with Paste readers?

For a fine and satisfying breakfast, five blocks north we visit a bakery, Romannoti. (Calle 125, Carrera 23) We usually order c_aldo de costilla_, beef-rib soup. Soup for breakfast? It sounds strange in El Norte, but this aromatic bowl with a whole local potato, a filling portion of tender beef, and a broth seasoned with green onion bits hits just about every spot on chilly mornings in the high Andes. Freshly baked pan frances (French bread) to dip, a hot café con leche (always served here with a portion of farm cheese), and a bowl of ripe mango puts us on top of the morning.

A good cup of coffee awaits on many corners in this land where mountain farmers grow the best beans in the world. I’ve had a bad cup or two of Colombian Joe (or is it Jose?), but bad coffee is memorable here and can be a topic of solemn discussion for days, usually in tones of voice reserved for a sick relative. The brand Juan Valdez is the Starbucks of Colombia, reliable, always (here’s that word again) a pleasure. Juan Valdez hot-watering holes sprinkle Bogotá, and many others in Colombia. We frequent the Calle 125 branch, near Romannoti. A few blocks east, Café Quindio also brews up a nice cup, with beans from Eje Cafetero, the steep coffee country around Armenia and Manizales. It’s an easy stroll to the best caffeination in a caffeine nation.

How about a really good cookie? Four blocks east, on Carrera 19, a wildly popular Asian-fusion restaurant called Wok packs ‘em in. The wait for a table can be long, but we bypass it via a little first-floor grab-and-go for take-out. A remarkable cookie waits there. Most Colombian cookies are white flour, processed, industrial, standard. The Wok oatmeal cookie is hand-made of honey, oats, sunflower seeds, chopped fruits, and spices. Soft and chewy, it invites nibbles, not bites. The flavors in every tiny taste rise differently, and so pleasantly.

Empanadas R Us, here in Bogotá. Sometimes it seems that every street corner has a kiosk or shop selling these baked/fried corn-meal/flour turnovers stuffed with spiced beef or chicken. You can nosh on Chilean (meat, olives, eggs, raisins), Argentinian (wheat flour, meat, spices), Colombian (potatoes, meat), or many other national styles. My favorite: A little pastry shop, Dulcinea, holds down a corner of Carrera 23 and Calle 125. Just inside (take a ticket, it’s popular), you’ll see an empanada con champiñones y pollo (mushrooms and chicken). I bought one for myself and a visitor from Seattle last November. We had only walked a few blocks, munching, when we turned and went back for another. The pastry flakes perfectly, al dente, and the juices of white chicken and dark mushrooms sing a beautiful duet.

Hamburgers, like cockroaches and English sparrows, must exist everywhere on earth. Colombia is no exception, but finding a burger here the quality of those served in your local Stateside joint has been a challenge. We do have the usual-suspect U.S. chains—a 24-hour McDonald’s glows through the night five blocks away, and a neighborhood Burger King and Fuddrucker’s beckon, too. But for that local burger joint-style sandwich, structurally unstable from all the lettuce, tomato, and onion and the lubrication of condiments, with the meat crisped just exactly so outside and the bun crisped just exactly so inside … for that, we hit The Nook, four blocks away on Calle 19. The classic cheeseburger here rocks, and it rocks even harder chewed in time with uninterrupted hair-band concert footage on TV screens and a great sound system.

This pleasure makes keeping it simple … simple. We take a seat at Bogotá Beer Company on Calle 19, a craft beer place as much like an American bar as you’ll find anywhere in Colombia (the major difference is BBC’s constant fútbol matches on TV). The server brings a michelada: a tall glass rimmed with salt, like a margarita, but splashed one-fourth full of lime juice. We pour in una cerveza Monserrate, a golden light ale. We lick the salt, inhale the tart liquid. We see Saturday night a whole new way.

We have a family ritual for Sunday mornings when we don’t have the kids. We sleep late, rise hungry, and wander four blocks to Carrera 19. The Crepes ‘n Waffles fruit bar—we’re talking Colombian fruit here—never disappoints. We graze on granadilla, pineapple, papaya, strawberries, prunes, oranges, mango, kiwi, watermelon, grapes … and things you never saw before. The star attraction? Guanabana, a fruit I didn’t know existed before moving to the tropics. White and juicy, it bursts in the mouth with a sour sweetness unlike anything else on the buffet. Bites from our brimming fruit bowls and a free Sunday copy of El Tiempo, Colombia’s newspaper of record, set the tone for a wondrous day … and make the week ahead shine with possibility, bright as El Dorado, Colombia’s mythical city of gold.

We wish we could walk to El Dorado too.

Image: Nicola, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.