Chasin' Player in Bogotá
Note to my editor: I worked really hard on this article. It's about Colombian food, so I flew to the South American country's capital, Bogotá. I spent weeks there doing in-depth research, talking to the locals about what they eat, visiting dozens of neighborhood restaurants, and shadowing cooks as they prepared meals in their own home kitchens. I learned fluent Spanish so I could pronounce, with proper authority, such traditional dishes as ajiaco (cream of chicken soup with potato, rice and avocado), sobrebarriga a la criolla (stewed beef in Creole sauce), and sancocho de res (thick beef short rib soup with potatoes, plantains, yucca, and corn on the cob).
I put in the effort because I know that, even though we're a somewhat smaller newspaper than, say, the New York Times, we still have unflagging dedication to doing whatever it takes to craft the best, most probing stories we can.
(Okay, editor, you caught me. That first part's not exactly true. I actually traveled to Tempe. I went to Brasa Roja, a new Colombian cafe plopped between a Fry's and a Petco at McClintock and Guadalupe. But I ate authentic South American meals there three different times, and the restaurant is an agonizing half-hour drive from my home -- even worse at rush hour.)
Here's what I found while on my assignment: Colombian culture is so much more than just an illicit drug economy, where, as one top-ranking CIA official I interviewed told me under the condition of anonymity, "the violence is deadly and large swaths of the countryside are under guerrilla influence." (All right, so I didn't actually talk to the CIA. But I did look at their totally cool Web site [http://www.cia.gov/], and I'm pretty sure the information posted there is correct.)
What I learned is that besides being the world's largest cultivator of cocaine and heroin, Colombia has a healthy farming community. This means their recipes incorporate lots of fresh steak, chicken, rice, beans, tomatoes, peppers and plantains. Plantains, dear editor, are large, firm Latin American bananas. When they're picked and cooked green, they have a mild, squash-like flavor. When ripe, they turn sweet and slightly spongy soft arriving grilled and custardy under a caramelized crust. They're very tasty.
The most critical information I've uncovered, though, is that in Spanish, Brasa Roja means "red flame." But to us Valley folks, it means the food at this cute little restaurant is homemade, completely delicious, hugely filling, and pretty inexpensive.
While working on this story, I had dinner with the president of Colombia -- a really nice fellow named Alvaro Uribe Vélez. He told me something I'd never known, that the national dish of Colombia is called bandeja paisa. (Well, fine, maybe Mr. Uribe himself didn't tell me that, but the waitress at Brasa Roja did, and she comes from Armenia -- a city just west of Bogotá -- so I figure she would know.)
This waitress told me that the signature dish is one of the most popular entrees ordered at Brasa. (Don't worry, boss, I know that this is true, not just because the waitress said so, but because I saw it with my own eyes, with plate after plate coming out of the kitchen as if on an invisible conveyor belt of delicious aromas.)
Armenia is one of the primary coffee zones of the country, which is why Brasa Roja's casual Spanish decor is accented with imported burlap sacks of the java beans. Bandeja paisa, my waitress explained, is what the coffee pickers eat as their noontime meal; they need the energy from the protein-rich dish to keep their strength up in the fields. I really needed to try it, she insisted.
I did try it. (Note to my editor: I did, personally. I could have just looked at a photo of the dish, but I took that extra step.) And I have to report back that, while I love the platter, there is absolutely no way I could consume food of this quantity, of this heartiness, then go out to pick anything except the softest available space for a nap. That's because bandeja paisa is a gargantuan feast of beef (10 ounces of filet or ground meat), chicharrón (a slab of fried pork), an entire bratwurst-size sausage, half a buttery avocado, a flashlight-size grilled plantain, an egg over easy, a crispy edged arepa (corn fritter), a mound of fluffy white rice and a lake of soupy red beans. Many Americans prefer the grilled steak filet, my waitress said, though I went for the more traditional browned ground version, dryish but abundantly flavored with finely diced onion, red pepper and garlic. I ate in a circle, alternating forkfuls of different flavors, particularly charmed by the sausage, a South American version of chorizo that is more complexly spiced than hot. Who could eat a dainty portion? The food was so good that I had to scrape my plate clean.
Because I am dedicated to accuracy, I next flew to Fairfax, Virginia, where Brasa Roja's business card lists another location. It turns out that this is true -- the Pardo family opened their original shop there, and then branched out among family members to Tempe. There's another store in Silver Spring, Maryland, and I went there too.
(Such a picky editor! Fine, I didn't go to Virginia. I didn't go to Silver Spring, either. But I found a Web listing that says the Fairfax eatery exists, and that "the chicken is excellent." I didn't actually find any Maryland listing, though, so you might want to have our crack team of fact checkers look in on it. They could call the phone number on the card, I guess.)
Whether Brasa Roja honestly has "the best chicken in town," as its business cards boldly proclaim, I can't really verify. Over the last week, I tried to eat at every single metro-Phoenix place serving chicken, but may have missed a few. (Oh, whatever! So I actually just ate Brasa's poultry in three different versions, but each time it was topnotch.) The rotisserie broiled bird came out a bit parched in the classic arroz con pollo, a mountain of tomato-garlic absorbed rice spiked with breast meat, peas, onion and green pepper alongside yucca, a sweet-toned root vegetable prepared like French fries. Yet it was moist and juicy in lomo saltado, a sort of rice casserole with pretty much the same ingredients as arroz con pollo, but a lot more gravy. When the chicken's on its own -- whole, halves or quartered and served with salad plus French fries, rice, beans or yucca -- the Spanish seasoning marinade shines through.
Note to copy desk: Our spell-checker is going to kick back this word: patacón. But that is the correct spelling -- I double-checked in the National Library of Colombia Bogotá (er, okay, actually a South American cookbook I have in my back bedroom). Patacón is a delightful appetizer of green plantains, sliced and gorgeously greasy-crisp deep-fried. The chips are sprinkled with salt, and then dipped in zingy green aji chile salsa, or Dijon-mayo sauce sparked with jalapeño. The guacamole, though, is even better, bringing a big platter of chips fanned out like a starburst, and layered with lots of remarkably fresh, smooth, chunky fruit coarsely chopped with tomato and onion. They're a real treat to eat with one of Brasa Roja's outstanding, not-too-sweet margaritas, perhaps on a weekend night when the live Latin American music plays. One evening, the margaritas were just $1.99 for a huge glass, so don't be surprised, my editor, when I submit expenses for about two dozen of the beauties, in a rainbow of flavors like lime, blue, peach and strawberry. For professional reasons, I sampled them all.
Wow, those Colombians like their meat. It's everywhere there -- or at least it is on Brasa Roja's menu. They've got carne asada (10 ounces expertly broiled, with rice, beans, plantains and a tossed green salad), a 12-ounce New York steak, carne encebollada with grilled onions, and meaty charcoal-broiled ribs. Then there's a monster platter called the Brasa Roja, which is a feast of eight ounces of grilled beef, shrimp, a quarter chicken, rice and beans. I didn't find a single dish I didn't like, though I'll say that my favorite, during these hot summer months, is the mojarra, a whole tilapia fish deep-fried to juicy perfection.
(One more thing, ed.: Because I'm such a team player, I won't be asking for reimbursement for the expenses I incurred doing all this legwork. Don't want to bog down my rapid ascent to the top. I know you'll overlook some of my indiscretions. You wouldn't want to throw obstacles in the way of a young woman on the rise, would you? How would that make the paper look?)
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