Sweet Surprise

Only once can I remember my mother giving me advice. On the morning of my tenth birthday, she drew me to her heaving bosom -- well, I picture it heaving -- and said, "Son" -- she always called me son; I've no idea why -- "if you want to succeed in life, never eat anything with 'surprise' in its name."

Over the years, I have cherished this piece of folk wisdom, refusing at various times tangerines en surprise, eggs en surprise, melon en surprise and much else besides. It required no special effort on my part. I'm quite sure I'd have hated all these things. I learned early that life's surprises are almost always unpleasant.

That changed last week when a friend visited a local restaurant and passed along a copy of its menu. Brightly colored, it featured a painting in the naive style of one of those converted trucks that function as buses in Latin America. It's crowded with happy, grinning people, this truck. The hood is yellow, the fenders red, and the name La Chivita -- the little goat -- is painted above the cab. A man waving an arm leans from a window while, on the roof, a couple -- he clutching a bottle and she a flower -- gaze across a mist-filled valley. In the distance a mountain looms, the snow around its neck looking like a ruff.

Suggesting as it did a mood Latinos refer to as alegria -- meaning levity, cheer, a lightness of spirit -- I was enchanted enough to forget my mother's injunction. No, I didn't eat something with "surprise" in the title. What I did was worse, I ate at a restaurant with "surprise" in the title and, in the process, made a happy discovery. Not all surprises are nasty. Some, indeed, can prove quite nice.

La Sorpresa Colombiana (The Colombian Surprise) has been open some four years, but you'd never know it to visit the place. The people here are curiously tentative. When you enter, don't be surprised if they act a little startled. On one of my visits, I was asked if I wanted to eat. (No, I was tempted to say. I'm here to be measured for a three-piece suit.) They seemed of the impression that we'd entered the place in error; that our real objective was the gymnasium next door.

We were a little startled, too, because we'd expected La Sorpresa to be a bit like that truck: crowded and noisy and very jolly. Instead, it proved quite solemn. The restaurant looks like an art gallery. Black-and-white photographs line a cream-colored wall, and dotted here and there are a number of empty pedestals. Why are they empty? I've no idea -- unless La Sorpresa is having trouble deciding who its heroes are.

Side by side on the counter is a gigantic telephone so swollen, it looks as if it's about to burst and, just feet away, a coffeemaker whose shape suggests a tiny pagoda. The latter doesn't work and is displayed for decorative purposes. Seeing one of them, I was told, a Colombian immediately thinks of home.

From the looks of things, the plate most people order here is the bandeja montanera, as close to a national dish as Colombia has. A substantial thing -- and a steal at $7.75 -- it comprises, in addition to rice, beans, an egg and plantains fried a golden brown, a length of pork skin looking like the lower half of someone's dentures, the bread known as arepa (which I mistook for a mushroom cap) and a good-sized piece of nicely seasoned steak -- the sort that, in Latin America, is pounded flat to make it tender. It's a meal in itself and very, very appetizing.

Viudo de pescado ($10.50) -- redfish served in coconut milk -- is excellent as well. The fish is served whole, and it's quite the sight. In death, as it was in life, its mouth is turned down, which made me wonder if the creature was sneering at me. And that eye: how baleful it looked, how unrelenting. This was worse than the mythical basilisk whose glance was fatal. Before beginning to eat, I had to cover the accusatory eye with a piece of fried plantain.

The arroz con pollo ($5.75) -- chicken with rice -- is another great value. A bright yellow in color, the rice is molded to look like a large creme caramel and comes dotted with red and green bell peppers, peas, morsels of carrot and pieces of shredded chicken. It was immensely satisfying.

Of the entrees we tried, only camarones al ajillo ($9.50) -- garlic shrimp -- fell seriously short. And I have only myself to blame for that. Without actually advising me against the dish, the waiter tried valiantly to encourage me to choose something else. But dolt that I am, I refused to listen and ended up paying for my obstinacy. The shrimp were not as well cooked as I would have liked, but that I might have overlooked. What couldn't be ignored was the oil they came in. Quite a lot of it. Enough, I would say, to fill a teacup.

Among the appetizers, the empanadas ($1 for a serving of two) are a standout. Instead of baking its empanadas, La Sorpresa fries them. The result is a crust that's piping hot and irresistibly crisp. One of the people who ate with me said they reminded him of corn dogs. Never having eaten a corn dog myself, I'm unable to vouch for the accuracy of this statement.

I don't recommend the chorizo ($2.25), which, in addition to being bland, was full of gristle. But I did like the arepa ($1.50). It looks like a thick tortilla and, at La Sorpresa, is garnished with queso fresco. If you add the right amount of salsa, it makes a pleasant snack. But I don't suggest you make a meal of them. They're a little Spartan.

La Sorpresa Colombiana, 7126 Clarewood, 995-8611.


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