I may have already mentioned this a half dozen times or so, but today marks the grand opening of the Boise International Market. There will be music, dancing, fashion, crafts, and of course food, all day long. I’ll be going a little later in the afternoon, but I figured I’d take this chance to talk about newest member of BIM’s culinary family, El Cafetal Colombian Restaurant.
El Cafetal was not yet open at the time I did my previous BIM post. Like Kibrom’s before them, they are the first restaurant to represent their particular cuisine in Boise, which is in itself enough of a reason to make the trip. Personally, it took me a while to get around to trying them out because, well, I was made. I had originally considered waiting on my original BIM post until after El Cafetal opened just so I could do a comprehensive write-up, but I wanted to spread the word on the Market and hopefully get some more people in there to check it out. Well, it didn’t take long for the guys at Kahve to put together who I was once that review was posted, and word spreads pretty quickly in such a tight-knit community. The next time I stuck my head in the door, I was thanked by the Kahve crew, waved at by Kibrom, smiled at by the good folks at The Goodness Land, people kept sticking their heads around corners to look at me…yeah, I felt a little self-conscious. Everyone seemed happy with what I had written about them, yes, but my cover was blown. It took a few more weeks but I bided my time, looking around, slugging back Cuban coffees, and one day I arrived on a weeknight when things were pretty dead. There was a new face behind the bar at Kahve, so no problem there. Kibrom had a few customers he was dealing with, so I kept my head down and walked quickly past without being detected. Before I knew it I was standing at El Cafetal’s counter, once again just another anonymous white guy with an interest in ethnic cuisine.
El Cafetal is yet another good reason for me to learn Spanish, because there was definitely a bit of a language barrier. Luckily for me the menu is pretty user-friendly, and I was able to just point out what I wanted on it. Fair warning to restaurateurs: if I don’t speak your language, I tend to tip even better out of a feeling of guilt for making your job harder. Anyway, I had brought along my roommate’s younger daughter on this outing, her first trip to the BIM (or anything like it, really). I must confess that my motives were as selfish as they were educational, as there was something on the kid’s menu (a kid’s menu is welcome, and something that none of the other eateries there have so far as I’ve noticed) that I wanted to try. Go ahead and judge. Anyway, we placed our orders and picked a table.
For the wee one (and with her consent, I’m not a monster after all) I ordered Salchipapas, a popular street food throughout Latin America but one which only appears on the kid’s menu at El Cafetal. There are many variations, but the base components are salchicha (sausage) and papa (potato). Get it? I had expected sliced sausage on a bed of french fries or home fry style spuds, but they surprised me by using tiny smoked sausages. This might be an issue with some children, but the kid I had in tow has been exposed to plenty of smoky foods due to my obsession with barbecued meats and good cheeses. She was only a few bites in before she asked if we could come back again sometime. Of course between the pan-fried sausage and the deep-fried potatoes there is a bit of a grease factor, but the squeeze bottle of what was essentially fry sauce helped to cut through that.
For myself I ordered Bandeja Paisa, which is basically the most comprehensive sampler platter available and something of an unofficial national dish in Colombia. In fact, bandeja means “platter” (Paisa referrs to a person from the Paisa region of Colombia). Once again, there are variations to be had depending on where you order this (including one that comes with blood sausage!), but El Cafetal’s version is comprised of rice, kidney beans, chicharron (pork rind), chorizo, carne asada, avocado, fried sweet plantain, an arepa (cornmeal cake), and a fried egg. What I was served wasn’t exactly what was shown on the menu (I received about half the avocado, chicharron and chorizo shown in the menu picture), but to be honest this was more than enough food for one person. The last thing I needed was additional meat and starch. Let’s get the low points out of the way first: I wasn’t a huge fan of the beans, but then again beans are one of the things I’m super picky about. I don’t like them in chili, I despise the sweet ones served at barbecue joints, and I almost never enjoy them soupy. In fact, given the choice I pretty much only ever eat black beans. Still, the sauce had some good flavor, and I used my arepa to mop up some of it. I also wasn’t particularly taken with the chicharron, but once again I can’t fault them for this. I’ve never particularly enjoyed it no matter where I’ve had it, it’s just too damned much gnawing and chewing for me. I was hoping the Colombian version might appeal more to me, but when all was said and done it didn’t differ much from the Mexican or Filipino varieties I’ve sampled in the past. The avocado was exceedingly fresh and the egg perfectly cooked, and the rice was amazing after it had soaked up some of the bean sauce and egg yolk. The fried plantain was a fried plantain, only an issue if it is too ripe or not ripe enough, and under or over cooked, and this one was none of those things. The chorizo was milder than I was expecting based on past experience, but just fine in the flavor department. The most surprising thing was the carne asada, which is not like the Mexican version at all. If I had to describe it, I would ask you to more or less imagine beef jerky served as a hot entree rather than a cold snack. It was thin and very well-seasoned, and I liked it a lot. The Bandeja Paisa is a great way to check out the cooking methods and flavors on hand, so if you’re curious about the place but feeling a little cautious, I would recommend maybe splitting it with a friend or two as a way of learning more about Colombian food before moving on to the rest of the menu. As for me, I intend to check out the empanadas and stuffed arepas next. If nothing else, be aware that the food at El Cafetal tends to be heavy and hearty.
One more thing before I let you go; yes, I did have to stop at Kahve for yet another Cuban coffee on my way out. Turns out the new guy is actually the brother of the regular guy. He seemed a little nervous about meeting the standard his brother set, but my coffee was every bit as good as it always is, so apparently no matter who is working at Kahve, you can trust that you’re in good hands.