It's unfortunate that most of the world thinks only of Colombia as the home of top-notch cocaine and its most famous slinger, Pablo Escobar, because the northern South American country of 46 million people is also home to a rich cultural history that includes Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel García Márquez, colorful Carnival celebrations and native food dishes unlike anywhere else.
More than 3000 miles away in Long Beach, Colombia's traditional culture lives on at Bambuco, an eatery hidden deep in the city's uninhabited lower west side. Named after the country's native folk music genre, Bambuco--Long Beach's only Colombian restaurant--is close enough to the big rigs and warehouses of the port complex to smell the salt water and yet transportive to another world.
Step off busy Santa Fe Avenue into the homey hole in the wall and you're greeted by a small dining room, cozy shaded patio and a makeshift Latin American supermarket, placed right where the order counter should be. If you're not stopping by to pick up a quick bag of Sello Rojo coffee or a pack of Chocoramo snack cakes, though, sit down in one of the few inside booths and (as I did recently during a recent noontime World Cup game) face the single Univision-tuned flat screen TV.
As one of the few eateries on the block with a liquor license (Taqueria La Mexicana next door and Bud's Subs across the street are both dry), a bottle of Colombia's light lager, Aguila, is required pre-meal sipping. Ordering a "refajo" only ups the local authenticity--at Bambuco, this distinctly Colombian concoction of beer and Cactus Cooler-esque Colombiana soda comes in an oversized plastic cup and puts micheladas to shame.
For food, an easily navigable English/Spanish menu (pictures too!) guides you through the various aspects of Colombian cuisine. Traditional plates like crispy fried empanadas, sobrebarriga en salsa criolla, arroz con pollo and paella de camaron reflect the country's scattered heritages with influences from Spain, the Carribbean, Asia and Central America all living together. Fried yuca, plantains, and coconut rice are common sides and most platters (aka "bandejas," some of which are on lunch special for $7.50) come with one or more.
The most fundamental Colombian dish, however, is also its most delicious: bandeja paisa, the national food and a full-course meal on a single plate. Three kinds of meat--grass-fed flank steak, dark chorizo sausage and tri-layer chicharrón fried thick and splayed out still on the skin like a fatty pork rainbow--are arranged around a central hub of rice with a fried egg on top. A medal-sized flavorless white cornmeal arepa is dipped partially into the half-plate of stewed beans de la olla (with pintos so large you'd think they were oversized South American bugs) and palate cleansers like fried plantains and tangy slaw round out the color palate.
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Yes, you did that math right--there are eight different items on each bandeja paisa, half of which are fried. "It's all healthy," the sweet as can be server told me with all honesty the first time she served me the massive $15 plate. "How the hell do I eat this thing?" I asked. "Just cut and dip. Mix and match the flavors however you want," she said as she flitted behind the curtains back into the kitchen.
With World Cup games going nearly every day through next month and Colombia qualifying for the global competition for the first time since the '90s, this summer is as good a time as ever to discover the other (tastier) side of the country's culture.
And at Bambuco--the single bastion of Colombia's greatness in Long Beach--all games will be screened, traditional food will be served and refreshing refajos will be liberally poured to any and all open-minded gringos who wish to go beyond the coke-and-violence reputation of South America's most misunderstood pais.
Bambuco, 1478 Santa Fe Ave., Long Beach, (562) 435-8333, bambucogrill.com