by Patti Nickell
Nicolas Alvarez tells you right off that his new restaurant, the Colombian Corner, doesn’t serve Mexican food. So, don’t ask for a fajita or a taco or a burrito.
Instead, ask for a patacon, an arepa or a pollo sudado, or any of the other dishes that come mainly from the region around Bogota, Colombia’s capital city. You’ll be happily taking your tastebuds on a new adventure.
According to Alvarez, who manages the restaurant where his mother Velcy Velasquez runs the kitchen, the Colombian Corner is the only restaurant in Kentucky specializing in Colombian cuisine.
“I know there are some Colombian food trucks, but we are the only restaurant bringing to Kentucky the cuisine of my country,” he says.
So, just what is Colombian cuisine? According to Alvarez, it is an eclectic mix of dishes from the six main regions of the country, borrowing from its neighbors Panama, Venezuela and Peru, as well as Puerto Rico and Cuba, even Spain, West Africa and the Middle East – just not Mexico. More about that cuisine later.
Alvarez and his mother have been in the U.S. for nine years, and while he speaks fluent English, hers is more limited. Not to worry. Her warm, welcoming smile and kitchen artistry make for instant communication.
The tiny restaurant, just off the Bluegrass Parkway, is a U.S. outpost of the South American nation. On a clothesline strung across the ceiling rafters hang colorful reminders of Colombia – from a child’s elaborate folkloric dress to jerseys from the country’s favorite soccer teams.
On another line are suspended a string of Colombian flags, a tri-color of red, blue and yellow. A board on the wall lists the daily special. Six tables are spread across the room, with a few more chairs pulled up to the counter. Even though the restaurant has been open only since September, it has already attracted a devoted clientele.
Alvarez makes his way from table to table, ensuring each patron is happy, and from time to time Senora Velasquez, beaming smile intact, makes an appearance.
But mostly, she is in the kitchen whipping up some of the signature dishes mentioned earlier.
First up is a bowl of yuca balls to nosh on while you peruse the menu. Something of a novelty in Central Kentucky, yuca is made from the root of the cassava plant, stuffed with cheese, rolled into a small ball and fried to a golden brown.
Don’t nosh too much as you’ll need room for one of the entrée platters, which are massive. Perhaps the Bandeja Paisa, a traditional dish of beans, rice, ground beef, Colombian sausage, pork belly, fried egg, arepa, sweet plantain and avocado.
Or perhaps the Chicken Barranquillero (grilled chicken with pineapple, cheese and corn); patacon (a full sweet plantain served with cheese, corn, avocado and a choice of beef or chicken) or Salchichapapas (pork belly, blood sausage, Colombian sausage, yellow potato, plantain, yuca, steak, chicken and pork). Come extra hungry if you want this one.
Alvarez says that along with the Chicken Barranquillero, the three most popular dishes include picada, a Colombian version of Italy’s antipasto platter or Spain’s tapas, and the super arepa, a flat round cornmeal cake with cheese and the choice of shredded chicken or beef.
Whatever you order to eat, be sure to try Colombian lemonade to go with it. The only thing this lemonade has in common with the American version is the name. If you are expecting tart, you’re in for a surprise as it’s made with pure cane sugar. It’s not cloyingly sweet either – just refreshing and citrusy, and downright delicious.
Open for lunch and dinner, the Colombian Corner takes Kentuckians on a culinary journey that will be an adventure. Just don’t expect fajitas, tacos and burritos.