By Molly Dunn
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The wooden bowl full of warm milk, poached eggs and white bread comes with a slice of queso fresco on the side. You tear up the cheese and sprinkle it on top, our waitress at Mi Pueblito Restaurant explains. This milky, parsley-flavored soup is called changua, and it's a popular breakfast in Bogotá.
The broth is delicious, but there's so much of it in the bowl, I can't finish it, especially since I also ordered a lulosmoothie and some Colombian coffee. Lulo is a South American fruit that tastes like a cross between a papaya and a guava. The excellent Colombian coffee at Mi Pueblito is served with heated milk. It's a delicious, but very liquid, breakfast.
My dining companion tries a mango smoothie. It's not too sweet, fabulously frothy and very thick. She also gets calentado, a mix of rice and beans topped with chorizo and chicharrones, with scrambled eggs on the side. The chorizo (sausage) contains some nasty chunks of gristle, but I love the Colombian version of chicharrones. My breakfast mate gladly hands those chewy pork bits over, as they are way too fatty for her taste.
Houston, TX 77057
Mi Pueblito is not a restaurant that caters to Anglos; it serves authentic South American fare for a mainly Colombian clientele. Some of the food I love, and some of it I don't understand. Obviously my preferences and perceptions are different from those of a Colombian expat. I feel obliged to offer this warning, because the last time I reviewed a Colombian restaurant, I managed to piss off much of Houston's Colombian community with my disparaging comments about arepas.
At breakfast this morning, the arepas are thick, grilled discs of snow-white masa (dough), warm and creamy on the inside, with crunchy outer skins striped with black grill marks. They are delicious with scrambled eggs. But on my two other visits to Mi Pueblito, one at lunch and another at dinner, the arepas were served cold. If you grew up in Bogotá, cold arepas may be your idea of comfort food. But they remind me of hockey pucks made of hardened Elmer's glue.
The churrasco at Mi Pueblito is exceptional; the grilled sirloin is served on a sizzling platter with your choice of two sides. When I ordered it, I also got french fries and a fried egg and combined all of the above into a sort of Colombian steak-and-egg frites. Mi Pueblito's steak is one reason to go out of your way to visit this restaurant. It's a good inch thick and very tender. A little plastic dish of chimichurri sauce, the South American parsley pesto, comes on the side. It may be the best $11 steak in town.
Meat lovers will also be interested in such platos típicos (typical Colombian dishes) as lomo de res Mi Pueblito, a similar-sized sirloin grilled and served in a creole sauce, as well as grilled flank steak, broiled beef tongue, grilled beef liver, grilled pork loin and grilled pork chops.
For lunch one day, I sampled the small version of the bandeja paisa, a mixed grill typical of the Paisa region of Colombia, which includes well-done steak, chewy chicharrones, coarse chorizo, a perfect fried egg, sweet and gooey fried plantains, an avocado slice and a cold hockey puck -- okay, an arepa. This is considered the workingman's lunch in Colombia, and even the small version is a big plate of food.
As usual, I found the Colombian chicharrones to be the most interesting thing on the plate. Mexican chicharrones are crisp, deep-fried pork rinds. They have a crunchy, airy texture. The Colombian version is quite different. At Arepas & Empanadas Gourmet (12792 Veterans Memorial Drive, 281-444-6377), the Colombian restaurant I reviewed last year, the word chicharrones was translated as "pork skins." In that review ("Use Your Noodle," October 10, 2002), I said the pork skins tasted like bacon jerky; they were thick pieces of bacon attached to strips of skin, which were cut up and deep-fried.
At Mi Pueblito, the menu translates chicharrones as "pork bellies," a term more familiar to commodities traders than to cooks. Pork bellies are the primal cuts that contain the meat cured to make bacon. I considered my own pork belly future as I polished off way too many of these tasty bacon blobs at lunch.
My dining companion ordered trout a la plancha, which arrived overdone and very dry. A liberal application of lime juice and hot sauce helped a little. Colombians seem to like their fish well done and their main dishes unadorned with sauces. Luckily, Mi Pueblito provides every table with a little dish of lime sections and a bowl of green pepper sauce, so salsa-happy Houstonians can squeeze and slather to their hearts' content.
On another occasion, I sampled the ajiaco bogotano, which was billed as a "unique Colombian soup made out of three kinds of potatoes, shredded chicken and capers." The thick potato-chicken stew was served with rice and avocado on the side. With a big dose of green pepper sauce, it tasted pretty good. But I couldn't tell one kind of potato from the other.