Okay, we've waited long enough. Turns out the power of suggestion was not sufficient to correct our county's dearth of comida colombiana. (Though Dave Lieberman and I were helpful enough to suggest road trips to Burbank or Hollywood.) Looks like we need to spell out what's at stake here, people. Let's start with the basics.
Ah, the arepa. It's not a Colombian meal without one. But if you think you know what they're about because you swung by Mil Jugos a couple of times, think again. Those are Venezuelan arepas, a thicker, puffy-on-the-inside corn cake (which are great for stuffing meat, cheese and beans into). The Colombian versions are much thinner and flatter and cooked in a dry frying pan or (more commonly en la casa) on a little wire grill placed over a stove burner.
You can get 'em with white masa, yellow masa, or the arepa de chocolo, which is made with a wetter, sweet cornmeal dough (like a very moist johnny cake). Melted white cheese sandwiched between a couple of arepas de chocolo and griddled in a propane-powered pushcart is a popular street food, both in Colombia and in Miami. I can still hear the cry of "Aaa-repa-repa-reeeepa!" echoing off the walls of the old Miami Arena, not only pre-LeBron and pre-Shaq, but pre-Pat Fucking Riley. Good times.
The hand-flattened, stove-grilled arepas are usually a breakfast thing. And let me be clear: Arepas really are pretty damn bland. But if they're hand-patted nice and thin and grilled up right, with just a bit of char, they have a thin, crunchy outer crust that offers a note of popcorn, giving way to a chewy interior with a subtle maize flavor. At breakfast time, a smear of salted butter does just fine, or add a couple of slabs of soft queso blanco--to go with your chocolate (as in Mexico, usually made with water rather than milk). If you've got a bigger breakfast in front of you, rip the arepa into pieces to push your eggs onto your fork.
And speaking of Mexico and breakfast, on this last trip, I was treated to a Colombian primo of the Tex-Mex fave known as migas. While the North American version mixes scrambled eggs and tortilla strips, Colombian migas make use of yesterday's dried-out arepas, crumbling them into sauteed tomatoes and onions, seasoning them up with salt and pepper (maybe oregano), and then scrambling them with eggs. Rehydrated in this delicious concoction, the arepa bits take on a delicate, almost hash-brown potato consistency. Riquisimo.
I guess I do have to talk about the thicker, smaller, disc-shaped arepas, like the one that appears in the opening photo of the chuzos platter. Hum. Well, some people seem to like them, but to me, they always seem like undercooked corn pucks. Even if there's a good crust, the masa inside is always too pasty for my gringo palate.
The corn puck is about the only thing left on my plate when I order...
... a bandeja paisa. Next time, an ode to this and other tipica classics. For now, if you want to try your hand at making your own arepas, you can pick up the masa at most Latino grocery stores, or at Sara's Mercado:
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