My Pork Belly Future
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 lulo smoothie 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.
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.
There are seven arepa dishes on the appetizer list. I skipped them all and tried the picada para dos, a giant sampler plate for two with chicharrones, well-done steak, gristly chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), candy-sweet fried plantains, starchy fried yucca and delightful little round Colombian yellow potatoes. The morcilla looked and tasted like black boudin. And as usual, I ended up eating all of the chicharrones because my dining companion didn't want any.
After my milk soup breakfast, I get a refill on coffee. Mi Pueblito brews Sello Rojo coffee, an imported Colombian brand. While I sip it, I consider my surroundings. The restaurant is decorated with Colombian memorabilia and an eye-popping orange-and-blue color scheme. In the parking lot out front, there's an old school bus painted in bright colors with the name of the restaurant and slogans about Colombia and the United States all over it. On top of the bus, in a little wooden enclosure, cartoon cutouts of grinning passengers sit beside baskets of plastic produce. Buses like this are the main form of transportation for people out in the Colombian countryside, the waitress says. She is from Bogotá and has been in Houston for about a year.
There is also a cute little cartoon character adorning the restaurant's signage and menu. He's a man with a round face wearing a big hat and carrying what I first thought was a fishing pole. With him is an adoring donkey bearing sacks of coffee. On closer inspection, I realize the fishing pole is actually a whip -- which makes me wonder why the donkey is so happy.
Is this some character from Colombian folklore, like our Johnny Appleseed or Pecos Bill? I ask the waitress if he has a name. "Juan Valdez," she says without hesitation. "See, his face is a coffee bean," she explains in Spanish, pointing to the rounded features of the little man's head.
Juan Valdez was created in 1959 by the American advertising agency Doyle Dane & Bernbach for the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia. While Señor Valdez is one of the most successful advertising images ever created, he's a curious choice of national image for Colombia. I suppose he's better than cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar -- but not by much.
I call Barry Mehler, a professor of history at Ferris State University and the director of the Institute for the Study of Academic Racism, and ask him what he thinks of old Juan. "What a symbol," says Mehler. "Here's a guy whose only goal in life is to pick perfect coffee beans for the Americans. It's a great example of how we turn abject poverty into an idealized image to make us feel better. It's also a perversion of what's really happening. Colombian coffee plantations exploit desperately poor people. Nothing could be more obscene than the commercial transformation of this exploitation into the idyllic vision of Juan Valdez."
While the cheerful coffee picker with his donkey may be an odd symbol for the nation of Colombia, it's perfectly appropriate for Mi Pueblito Restaurant. With its rural bus full of cartoon characters out front, its bright shopping-center interior and its platos típicos, Mi Pueblito offers just the sort of simple, sunny nostalgia that homesick Colombians crave. And for us gringos, it's still not a bad spot for feasting on juicy churrasco and bacon-flavored pork bellies.
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