A comfortable taste of Colombia

Café Colombia opened in 1999 to serve transplanted Colombians. But the Burbank restaurant has plenty of rich comfort to go around.

The stew comes with corn on the cob standing in the middle of the bowl. That's the first clue that this is no run-of-the-mill soup. The next clue is the first spoonful. The rich, thick brew of chicken, potatoes and an Andean herb called guascos is what has made Ajiaco (ah-hee-AH-co) a staple in Colombian cuisine, and why it is comfort food defined.

This is South American cuisine, homey yet sophisticated. Colombian menus lean heavily on beef, root vegetables and sauces more reminiscent of tangy marinades than the chunky salsas of Mexican fare.

The cafe opens for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with live music on Friday nights. Breakfasts are as hearty as you can hope for. When we asked about the name of one menu offering, desenguayabo, co-owner Reinaldo Alvarez said it was a tongue-in-cheek name for a hangover remedy.

But if you can down a plate of carne asada, rice, beans and three fried eggs on a morning after, you deserve a role in “Hangover III.” The dish comes with arepas, a traditional Colombian corn cake, and an herb mixture called aji, made with cilantro, green onions, garlic and medium-hot peppers called ajies. The desenguayabo could be your only meal of the day, hangover or no.

The cafe also serves lighter fare for breakfast, including buñuelos, a deep-fried corn and cheese ball — fluffy, salty and filling. Pandebono is a sweeter, flatter cousin of the buñuelo, baked with the addition of cassava. Our table was evenly divided as to which was better, and none stayed on the plate long.

Lunch and dinner offerings are extensive, with beef, pork, fish, chicken and vegetarian dishes. The red snapper sudado — sweated — in tomato and onion, was fresh and bursting with flavor, as was the moist chicken a la criolla. The churrasco, a beef loin tri tip, comes with chimichurri sauce, though it is so well seasoned it hardly needs the parsley, olive oil and garlic accompaniment.

Most meals come with rice, beans and sweet fried plantains, called maduros, as well as arepas. The arepas star in the vegetarian dishes and can be ordered made with mozzarella cheese — mozzarepas. Green plantains get their due as patacones, fried and flattened discs salted and served as appetizers. They're addictive enough that they should require a prescription.

Empanadas, their thin cornmeal crusts enveloping beef, potato and a rich tomato- and onion-based sauce called hogao, seem more deserving of a starring role rather than the bit part of an appetizer.

Drinks include Pony Malta, Colombia's thicker, more bitter version of soda. The colorful fruit smoothies, with choices ranging from guanabana to mango, are thick and delicious.

Desserts include flan, a thick delicious custard; obleas, thin round wafers filled with dulce de leche; and figs and white cheese drenched in caramel sauce. The figs were the only dish we didn't devour. But my kids so loved the obleas that we bought one of the restaurant's kits for making them at home.

The warm-hued restaurant is decorated with a mixture of folk art, photos of Latino celebrities and a flat-screen TV showing soccer matches. Bougainvillea vines creep up the window facing Glenoaks Boulevard, handily obscuring a view of shops and passing cars. Latin music fills the cozy dining room, with cumbia pulsing through the afternoon.

The owners wait on you in English or Spanish, whichever you prefer. The descriptive menu, in both languages, explains individual dishes as well as the ingredients of Colombian cuisine in great detail. The cafe is welcoming to families, couples and those trying to fit lunch into their business schedules.

When an 11-year-old raves about the ajiaco and asks, “When are we going to the Colombian place again?” you know you've found a family favorite. And that's a comfort.


What: Café Colombia

Where: 222 S. Glenoaks Blvd., Burbank

When: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m to 9 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday

Cost: Breakfast, $5.50 to $8.95; starters, $1.50 to $9.50; soups, $4.95 to $10.95; entrees $7.50 to $15.95; weekday lunch specials, $7.50

Contact: (818) 558-3985 or elcafecolombia.com

REBECCA BRYANT is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared in Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, Caribbean Travel & Life and other publications.

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