Living in Arizona, it's easy to become familiar with the nuances of Mexican cooking. From corner taquerias and casual family-style places to higher-end restaurants, there's something for every taste and occasion, whether it's comfort food or exotica. But culinary creations from a lot farther south of the border as in South America are harder to come by.
To really get a taste of "southern cooking," you need to head west, to 42nd Ave and Bell Road, where Mi Cocina, Mi Pais serves up homey specialties from Ecuador, along with dishes from its neighbors, Colombia and Peru.
Mi Cocina, Mi Pais is a tiny strip mall nook that you could easily miss because there's a huge Taco Bell out front. (How that fast food place stays in business with such an awesome little ethnic joint next door where you could totally make a cheap meal out of a couple of empanadas or tamales is beyond me. People must be time-strapped.) Inside, the walls are painted a sunny shade of orange sherbet, and colorful weavings serve as art. There are only half a dozen tables, so it helps to get there early and snag a table for a leisurely lunch or dinner.
With any foreign food, the meal is so much better when you take a chance on the unusual drinks. I'm the girl who always insists on a lassi (Indian), some strong café sua da (Vietnamese), or an ice cold horchata (Mexican), so I was excited to try Ecuadorian beverages for the first time. Chicha morada was a sugary, deep purple liquid that I never would've guessed was made from blue corn boiled with fruit. Served on ice, it was just like punch, and a little too sweet for my taste. But avena helada, described as a drink made from oats, was far better than it sounded silky smooth, cold, and sweetened with pineapple juice. I couldn't detect the flavor of grain at all.
Things started off with a familiar offering of fresh chips and salsa, which my famished friends and I polished off before our appetizers even showed up. Ceviche de camarones was a spin on the ubiquitous recipe you'd get at a Mexican seafood restaurant. Here, the dish of shrimp, lime juice, cilantro and tomato was jazzed up with paper-thin slivers of pickled red onion, and served with popcorn. I rarely eat popcorn outside of movie theaters, but it tasted great when it soaked up some of the sauce. I also tried the ceviche de pescado, moist chunks of mariated sea bass dressed with cilantro, onion, and bits of aji, a South American chile. It came with thick slices of sweet potato and some corn on the cob, which provided a sweet foil to the tangy fish.
Tamales, available as individual appetizers or as part of an entree-size sampler plate, were moist and flavorful. One stuffed with aji was wrapped in a traditional corn husk, as was another filled with spicy red chile and shredded pork. But the traditional Ecuadorian pork tamale with juicy chunks of meat buried in pastel green masa came wrapped in a deep green banana leaf. Together, they made a tasty-looking trio.
We had no idea that our entrees would be so huge I was thinking of leftovers even before I started eating. Mi Bandera was king-size, with slices of roast pork, some fried plantains, a fried pastry and a cheese-filled potato cake, a heap of moist hominy, slices of avocado, and spicy pico de gallo made from aji. Sobrebarriga Bogotana, a mountain of slow-cooked Colombian-style beef, with tender carrots and onions, was so delicious that it'll make a fine substitute the next time I'm craving my grandma's pot roast.
That came with a pile of potatoes and white onions, slathered in a thick, mild cream sauce. And La Bandeja Paisa, the unofficial national dish of Colombia, was an incredible variety platter, with thin, marinated steak, some patacones (unripened plantain fritters), arepa (fluffy corn cakes), rice, warm pepper relish, red beans, fried plantains, a really good chunk of chorizo, avocado, a fried pork rib chicharron, and a fried egg. That was a mouthful in more ways than one.
Seco de pollo, a mildly spiced stew with chunks of chicken white meat, yellow rice, and some fried plantains, was a more manageable portion, albeit a very filling one.
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The sango de camarones was similar, with plump shrimp and plantains in a savory, nutty sauce. I also enjoyed the bold flavors of the sudado de pescado, a thick cod filet cooked in a glossy banana leaf. The fish was smothered with peppers and onions, and sides of rice and plantain chips rounded it out.
By the end of the meal, dessert was pure journalistic obligation, but in any case, Mi Cocina's offerings didn't disappoint. Isn't it amazing what people will make room for when it's right in front of them? My friends groaned at the sight of the flan de coco and a hefty slice of torta de maduros (plantain cake), but soon they started gobbling them up. I loved how the flan was double-layered, with creamy custard on top of coconut cake; the cinnamon-y torta was speckled with raisins and topped with fruit and creamy icing. I also nibbled on a crisp quinoa cookie, which reminded me of sesame, and had a few bites of the torta de camote, a moist confection of sweet potato and raisins.
With familiar items like salsa, tamales, and flan, the food at Mi Cocina, Mi Pais had just enough in common with other Latin American cuisines to be accessible. But plenty more of it was deliciously different, going well beyond the boundaries of Phoenix's usual Latin American options.
This territory is definitely worth exploring.