What the hell is it with Colombian restaurants? Two years ago, there was but one spot to serve OC's largest South American community; now, four dot the county, from Orange to Huntington Beach, Laguna Hills to the latest entry: La Colombiana in San Clemente.
It's the least likely entry in the bunch, as the audience is mostly middle-aged gabachos in resort wear and beach bums. For the unadventurous, the owners offer decidedly un-Colombian dishes such as pancakes and a breakfast burrito, and the beer-and-wine list is more extensive than the dishes. That said, this elegant dive doesn't dumb down its food at all. They offer the Colombian combo-plate classics known as the bandeja paisa and sobrebarriga (basically, meat upon meat upon meat upon starches) and sancocho, the Colombian yucca soup that's akin to sipping on the most delicious blanket of your life. Arepas are made to order and perfect: slightly blackened on the outside, moist on the inside, as bulky as a rice cake but far richer. Knowing its audience, La Colombiana doesn't stop serving breakfast until 2 p.m., the better for eaters to enjoy Colombian desayunos such as calentado, a deceptively simple bowl of white rice, pinto beans, a fried egg and a Colombian-style chorizo. But top it all with a tart ají, and the dish soars like the Cordillera Central.
Surprisingly, for this lifelong North OCer, La Colombiana's customers love it all. They scarf up the bandeja paisa and take home by the dozen bocadillo, a slice of guava paste topped with an unapologetically salty slab of cotija cheese. Every time I go, the chatty Eddy Bashoor, the mother of the restaurant's owner who lords over the open kitchen, apologizes for being out of buñuelos (fried cheese rolls), talks out loud about how her fluffy tamales are about to sell out, cracks jokes with the clientele and works the room as though someone a third her age. This is a gem of a place worthy of the long drive to the Spanish Village by the Sea—and besides, you know a restaurant is legitimately colombiano if it's bumping La Sonora Dinamita nonstop. But would it hurt to include Fruko y Sus Tesos?