Though located in a brightly lit strip center on Richmond west of Fondren, Anoranza's Tavern Restaurant is easy to miss. Because it's tucked in the crook of where the center makes an L-turn, it's all but invisible if you're heading out of the city. Even if you're traveling eastbound, Anoranza's doesn't jump out at you. At first glance, it bears little resemblance to a dining establishment; only the sign proclaiming "South American Cuisine" and the neon "open" hint at what's inside.
"Hint" is the right word; the restaurant's exterior is covered in dark, almost black glass, giving it an intimidating appearance and making the interior all but invisible. Even inside things are somewhat dark. But despite that, Anoranza's manages to be full of color, thanks in part to some bright, rainbow-hued dresses typical of Colombia that adorn both the walls and the waitresses. An interesting side note is that the name that appears on the credit card receipt isn't Anoranza's, but Club Cache -- as if there really is something to hide. But the club part turns out to be a disco next door that's operated by the owner of Anoranza's. A secret door in a front corner of the restaurant, made conspicuous by a large arrow indicating the direction in which it should be opened, links both places. The restaurant's busiest time is at 2 a.m., just when the disco is beginning to hop. Since both places close at 5 a.m. six days a week (Mondays are the off days), you can not only dance but -- unusual for Houston, where late night eateries are few and far between -- dine the night away.
Its hidden nature explains why most Anglos have never heard of Anoranza's. But for the estimated 25,000 Colombians who call Houston home, the restaurant has provided a link to the homeland for the past two years. It's a link that's not particularly English friendly; the menu is in Spanish only and consists of just the names of the dishes, no description, no listing of ingredients. And since the waitresses speak little to no English, dining at Anoranza's can make for an interesting adventure for the linguistically challenged, especially since on three separate occasions many dishes were unavailable.
Specials of the day, prepared seemingly at the whim of the cook, are available at dinner, but you have to pry them from the lips of the server. Lunch specials are also offered, but since there is as yet no official lunch menu, discovering them can be quite a challenge. Apparently, Anoranza's is a place frequented by regulars, and they already know what's what. So if your espanol isn't up to par, or you're not into point-and-shoot ordering off an unfamiliar menu, you may feel inclined to exit. But if you do so, it's your loss. Anoranza's is yet another reminder of the variety of cooking to be found south of the border, especially if you go way south. And it's a reminder that unlike, say, a Churrasco's, comes at a pretty cheap price.
The empanada appetizers are one item worth pointing at. Lightly fried meat turnovers filled with seasoned ground beef and onions, they appear on the table shaped like a crab. These handmade delicacies can be served with aji, the Colombian version of hot sauce, but which isn't -- hot, that is. Even though Anoranza's claims this tomato-based sauce is made with pequin peppers (among the hottest around), very little heat is discernible. The chicharron frito con arepa is an appetizer for those whose cholesterol count is well below 200, since it's a fried pork rind with lots of fat still attached. About one inch thick, the chicharron is presented in the form of a circle that, because of the way it's been sliced about every inch or so along its length, looks like a perfectly formed cog. The rind itself, extremely tough and crispy, is worth the molar workout. The baconlike meat that forms the interior of the circle tastes like any fried bacon; its thickness, however, makes the delightful flavor linger.
Since white corn is so ubiquitous in South American cuisines, it is a pleasure to find it used in the arepas, or fried corn cakes, that come with the meals. My only complaint is that I was only served one arepa with each appetizer and that it was only the size of a silver dollar. Even a serving of a half-dozen or so would merely whet my appetite for these delicious delicacies, whose soft, moist interior are enrobed in a thin skin when fried. Since no other bread is served with any of the entrees, the arepas have to go it alone, something they could do fine if presented in greater numbers.
Since Anoranza's doesn't have a liquor license, it serves only soft drinks. Barely worth trying is the manzana soda, a fizzy pink apple juice that has a very artificial taste that bears little to no resemblance to apples. The agua de panela, however, is a curiously addictive concoction made of unrefined sugar melted in hot water. This comes close to being sickly sweet, but is pulled from the brink by the addition of lemon juice, which lends balance to the almost caramelized flavor of the sugar.
The bandeja montanera, literally a mountain or farmer's platter, is probably more food than any farmer could put away. It consists of a churrasco steak -- a thin piece of New York strip marinated in wine and beer that's tender through and through, with a nice smoky flavor -- a chicharron similar to the one served as an appetizer and a chorizo that, though somewhat mealy, is well-seasoned. The side dishes, all on the same large platter, include plain white rice, something ubiquitous in Colombian cuisine; a bowl of red beans, thick in a dark brown sauce; a patacon, or whole plantain sliced in half and fried; and some perfunctory lettuce and tomato. The whole thing is topped off with a fried egg. When the egg is cut up on top of and mixed in with the rice, it makes for a wonderful dish.
The pollo Anoranza, one of the house specialties, is very much like a chicken fricassee. Its thin slices of chicken, beautifully intertwined with red and green bell peppers and tomatoes, make for a very simple, yet very tasty dish. It's served with rice, half a plantain, some lettuce and tomato. The sobrebarriga, one of the national dishes of Colombia, where it's normally served as flank steak, is here served as pork. Unfortunately, this is one of those off-the-menu specials that the waitress didn't easily proffer, which means that it's not always available. It is, however, worth asking for. Yet another simple dish, the sobrebarriga was a thin side of pork cut close to the ribs but containing no bones. It hardly seemed seasoned at all. In fact, it was probably only grilled. Yet its simplicity was its appeal. The full flavor of the pork was allowed to dominate. Though the same side dishes seem to be served with virtually every entree, the sobrebarriga was enhanced by something different, a warm potato salad in which were mixed onions, carrots, peas and a good helping of mayonnaise.
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Another pork dish worth discovering is the chuleta de cerdo. This is not, as one might expect, a pork chop, but rather an almost paper-thin, seasoned and breaded pork loin that is simply fried. The marvel is how they get a pork loin thin enough to cover almost an entire plate. The lengua en salsa, or smothered tongue, may not appeal to everyone, but it is truly a delectable dish. It's more like a stew in consistency. Mixed with tomatoes and onions, the tongue is so soft and tender that it falls apart in one's mouth.
One caveat: In case knowing that the restaurant is Colombian elevates your expectations of the coffee, allow me to disappoint you sooner rather than later. The coffee is, at best, a watery brew; at worst, it might even have been instant. A pity. But in the grand scheme of Anoranza's offerings, it's hardly a crime.
Anoranza's Tavern Restaurant, 9336 Richmond Avenue, 785-9994.
Anoranza's Tavern Restaurant:
empanada, $1; chicharron frito con arepa, $3; bandeja montanera, $8.95; pollo Anoranza, $7.95; chuleta de cerdo, $8.95; lengua en salsa, $7.95.