El Portón Colombiano Has Paisa Power

“Is this a Mexican restaurant?” asked some yoga goddess early one Tuesday morning as she entered El Portón Colombiano in Huntington Beach. And now you know the biggest problem this tiny eatery faces. Not only is it just the third Colombian restaurant to open in OC, but it's also in a shopping plaza in Huntington Beach better known for the Corner and Lucci's Deli than anything paisa—not the Mexican Spanish paisa but Colombian paisa, a term of endearment in the country instead of denigration as it is in Mexico. Confused? Now imagine how the locals must feel.

It's a shame because Colombian food is actually perfect surfer grub, all about starches and meat and filling up your stomach with heroic portions. And El Portón (“The Gate” in Colombian Spanish . . . I think) brings on the grub in a gorgeous spot decorated with Botero prints, historic photos of Colombia and a color scheme so coordinated the Colombian flag is represented by blue table mats, red napkins and yellow seats. The owners know the uphill battle to get customers in, so the menu is mostly a collection of “tapas” (really, Colombian appetizers made small and cheap for sharing) and arepas, those thick discs of masa that Colombians eat as though they were sopes. The offerings skip across Colombia, from savory green plantains to blood sausage to empanadas and more—all delicious. Almost everything comes with a side of hogao, a sauce that's essentially onions sautéed into a jam—umami at its finest. Only a couple of main courses are currently on the menu—bandeja paisa (the combo plate of Colombia, chockablock with chorizo, chicharrones, yucca, more meat and still more meat), sancocho, and the glories of the cazuelita paisa (see how the Colombians like paisa?), bean stew spiked with chicharrones and chorizo. It's the Atkins diet on steroids. Wash it down with any of the fruit juices or smoothies, porfas.

El Portón still has kinks to work out as its one-month anniversary approaches. The arepas are almost always gummy in the center. And it's never kosher to have one of your employees eat lunch in front of everyone—and for that lunch to be a Subway sandwich and Flamin' Hot Cheetos. But do visit this spot—and do your favorite infernal rag a proper, and don't ask for tacos, m'kay?


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