The arepa is Colombia in your hand. It’s doughy, it’s chewy, it’s crispy, it’s mushy, it’s fried and it’s grilled – of course, not all at the same time. But first, a quick rant from yours truly:
Quick Rant About NOW
James and I left Medellin a few days ago and spent a few nights in Barranquilla. Its claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Shakira and Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara. Barranquilla also hosts the 2nd largest carnival (after Rio) every February or March. Outside of that, there really isn’t much to do. We had actually purchased tickets to fly to upscale, caribbean city, Cartagena but we missed our flight. Note to those flying on VivaColombia: Check-in is 1 hour prior to your actual flight time. If you don’t do it, they will not let you in. It’s ridiculous.
Anyway, not wanting to throw the entire value of our tickets down the drain, we flew to Barranquilla with absolutely no plans.
We asked the cab driver to take us to the touristy, central part of town and guess where that lead us? Next to the red light district.
Oh but don’t worry, it was well kept. It did not feel sketchy at all. There were just plenty of hotels advertising their price per hour. It’s how we knew. Regardless, the cab driver found us a nice hotel for about $20 a night, or less. (The dollar just keeps getting stronger!) The internet was fast enough, there was a cat on the premise, and our mini fridge was stocked with beer and water at very reasonable prices. So we turned on True Detective, season 2 and binged, yet again on another show.
We are now in Santa Marta, hometown of Carlos Vives. And if you don’t know who that is then it’s probably because you’re white.
We checked into hostel Casa Familiar because aside from it having the basic amenities that we need – a good wifi connection, a kitchen, a huge fan and a few animals to pet including a kitten who I named Maggie – it’s also very clean and only two blocks from the gorgeous Carribbean sea. And at $15 a night for a private room with private bath? It’s hard to beat.
What a tortilla is in Mexico, the arepa is in Colombia only more versatile and in my humble opinion, much more enjoyable (says the girl raised in LA who lives in San Diego and hops the border every month just for street tacos). Really? Just for tacos? But you can get great tacos in San Diego. Yes but there is something lacking, it’s a je ne sais quoi.
“Es la mugre!” Said my friend Richard.
That’s actually kind of gross and probably true and I don’t care!
Arepas! Mmm! Aside from being, doughy, chewy, crispy, mushy, fried and grilled (not all at the same time of course), arepas also come in different sizes—from poker chips to CDs. Like a tortilla, they’re made of corn and they’re usually served on the side of the main course. Unlike tortillas, you won’t get a steamy pile of them. Boo! It’s okay, it keeps the carbs down and lord knows I’ve been trying and half-assing it. This is me half-assing it: “I’ll skip the rice today as I’ve scarfed down a small bag of cheese puffs earlier today in secret.”
“A second beer? Hmm, what kind of cake is that woman selling across the street? Perhaps I could do a trade off.”
I’m here to not talk about The Perfect Arepa, I’m here to tell you about MY perfect arepa.
My perfect arepa is the size of a CD (remember those? They’re 8-inches in diameter). First, the arepa bun is stuffed with ranchero or panela cheese, then it’s grilled to grill mark perfection and stuffed with mushrooms and corn; finally, per my request, the cook inundates the ingredients with garlic cream sauce, avocado sauce and lots, and lots of aji (for spice).
For directions on how to order this in Colombian Spanish, scroll to the bottom.
You can stuff your arepa with whatever you want: sausages, hot dogs, pineapple, shredded chicken, shredded pork, bacon, caramalized onions, more onions, and even more cheese. That’s usually what you’ll get on the street and it varies slightly with every vendor. For example, some vendors offer shrimp.
Once you have the arepa in your hand, if you’re ready to eat it right there, the vendor (or cook) will offer you a plastic stool and a minifork, dig in! The outside of the arepa bun should have a toasty crust. The immediate layer below that will be mushy—that’s where you will dig your fork in. You fold the mushy half cooked polenta with melted cheese over the mushrooms and corn, eat then take a bite as if it were a huge sandwich.
I was sitting in front of the TV watching the penultimum episode of House of Cards, Season 3 when two things hit me, one:
“Mashed potatoes!” I said. “This tastes like mashed potatoes, a German Shepherd Pie!”
James’s eyes averted from the TV—a tired and tenacious Robin Wright gracing the screen—and laid them on me.
“You mean the dog?”
I thought about this.
“I miss Frida?” I joked. “Oh you know what I’m talking about! Doesn’t this remind you of a Shepherd’s Pie, only without the Irish gravy?”
He nodded yes but his attention was too consumed by his arepa so I took that not as an answer, but as an acknowledgement.
The second thing that hit me was this show, House of Cards. No spoilers here! The New York Times had given the third season a terrible review; it argued that there was too much policy involved and perhaps too much of Francis Underwood i.e. The Tyranical and Ruthless President. While I don’t disagree with that, it’s not like the show was laden with so much ambiguous political jargon that you thought, “Oh so now I see why Fox exist.”
Best of all was the acting from the entire cast (Remy, Doug, Claire and even that creepy guy who appears in Always Sunny in Philadelphia) was very good; so good in fact, it’s what kept me enthralled, glued to the screen as I binged, quite literally, with my third arepa of the week. If our apartment wasn’t equipped with a huge flat screen TV with Netflix, we would have never have given the third season a chance. But we needed something to distract us during our 22 Scientific minute workout; Netflix seemed adamant about having any great movies, now there’s a ton of Netflix original series’s instead. House of Cards is their bread and butter—it’s what we know so whatever! And that is how we ended up watching House of Cards Season 3.
Now that I described the perfect arepa—and how to eat it—I should tell you where I got mine. For the record, James and I are not vegetarians but it was his idea to get the arepa with mushrooms, corn and cheese. I added bacon one time but it wasn’t crispy enough. When they pass you a menu, you’ll be bombarded with choices. Like a pizza, you can choose whatever toppings you want or you can get a “Super Arepa” which loads your arepa with an orgy of meat and veggies. My suggestion is: less is best and stay away from hotdogs. It’s gross and they overdo it.
Where to go for Juana’s arepa
We stayed in upper-middle class town, Laureles. The main drag is calle (street) 70, call it “setenta” and the locals will know
what you’re talking about. 70 is lively every day of the week and even livelier during the weekends. The prices there are significantly lower than el Poblado aka the La Jolla of Medellin. You’ll find dance clubs, restaurants, casinos, hotels, banks, fast food stalls, supermarkets and kiosks selling crafty alcoholic shots for about a buck. This is also the place where the soccer stadium lurks nearby. During game time, half of 70 swarms with fans wearing green or red (depending on the team they’re rooting for).
Coming from the metro station, the stop is called “Estadio”, you walk down 70 for several blocks on the right side. If you passed the Mondongos restaurant (a popular lunch place with the locals, it’s good but not cheap, read my review on TripAdvisor) on your right, then you’ve gone too far. When you see a casino diagonally across from you (on the left side) with a sign blazing, “Havana”, search for the bakery to your right. Next to that bakery, you will see two ladies under a colorful umbrella running the arepa stand that James and I frequented, which, we would’ve frequented more if it weren’t for their hours of operation. Sadly, the ladies work weekend nights and holidays from 5pm till 9ish.
If visiting this arepa stand is out of your way, then fetch yourself a stuffed arepa anywhere else in Medellin—they’re everywhere. As long as you see arepa buns, the size of CDs, being grilled, then you should be good (see photo). There are also restaurants that sell the stuffed arepa but the advantage of getting one on the street is that you will see it be made fresh before your eyes.
Vegetarian Restaurant – Saludpan in Laureles
You don’t have to be a vegetarian to enjoy this place. James usually got the chicken salad sandwich which I thought was made from mock chicken (it tasted like mock chicken) but when I ordered it, I confirmed with my waitress that it was made with real chicken. It remains a mystery to this day.
Saludpan is a bakery/healthfood store/vegetarian restaurant specializing in raw food. I’ve never been a raw food advocate, I’m sure that it’s a great lifestyle so I’m no opponent either. I tried several of the raw soups at Saludpan and they’re all delicious. At the moment I can’t recall one that stood out but if you really want to know, read my review on TripAdvisor.
In my last blog, I mentioned that Saludpan was my workspace and for good reason. The internet at our apartment was down for several days so I had to find a place with fast internet, a place that wouldn’t kick me out for not consuming something every hour. The waitresses at Saludpan made me feel at home. Also, because the food was amazing and the prices, too were incredible, I wanted to order something, but not every hour.
This is random. James and I have become more conscious about oral hygiene. Reason being, white teeth! I learned that swishing coconut oil in your mouth (called oil pulling) for 15 minutes cleans the plaque from your gums and teeth. We’ve been oil pulling for over 10 days and James says he notices a difference. I think I noticed some difference but my teeth have always been white 🙂 But where do you find coconut oil in Medellin? I purchased some at Saludpan.
Quick disclaimer: Saludpan is not paying me to promote them but if you’re the owner of that restaurant and reading this, I’ll will gladly accept a $25 ITunes gift card as a thank you.
How to get to Saludpan
You can check out their website here or you can follow my instructions: From the arepa stand, you will continue to walk one or a few blocks down 70 until you see the Mondongos’ balcony in front of you. Upon reaching it, do not cross the street, turn to your right and Saludpan will be on that block. The place is open everyday from 8am (except for holidays though it wouldn’t hurt to call and ask) till 6ish or 8 – how’s that for a ballpark figure? Saludpan has a unique lunch menu that varies everyday. It gets packed around noon so do plan to arrive early. If you can’t find a table, you can ask to share one with other people. The waitresses will take good care of you so take care of them. Just because they’re hot, don’t be shy, they’ll accept your tips 😉
There are several places that we’ve eaten at which I wrote about on TripAdvisor but these two were the ones that I chose to write about.
How to order Juana’s Stuffed Arepa
Mushrooms, are good for you. Not referring to the psychedelic kind. When I have mushrooms, meat becomes unnecessary for my demanding palate for umami. Growing up, my mother called them hongos (own-gohs) in Spanish.
The next time you travel to South America and you say, “Hongos” and the person gives you a puzzled look, try this word: champiniones (shamp-eee-nion-ehs). On a side note, the reason why people gave me a puzzled look when I said, “Hongos” in Colombia, could be because they thought I was referring to something else. No mam, I do not have fungus.
In Spanish and in Mexico, an elote (eh-loh-teh) is a corn on the cob (often rubbed with butter or mayonnaise and sprinkled with cotija cheese, salt and spicy lime sauce). Delicious!
In Peru, they call it choclo (choh-kloh), and they use that term here in Colombia to refer to the type of starch. But if you want diced corn in Colombia for your arepa, say maizitos (my-see-tos).
Other ingredients: Bacon
In Spanish, we call it tocino (toh-see-no) and if you say that in Colombia, they will either nod or correct you. Colombians call it tocineta (toh-see-neh-ta), so the ending is slightly different.
Other ingredients: Hotdogs
If you must, here’s how you say it, salchicha (sal-chee-cha).
Other ingredients: Chicharrón
It’s fried pork belly or fried pork rinds. Growing up, my mom used to eat it as if it were beef jerky. It may sound gross but it’s actually pretty good when done right. I’m very picky with my chicharrón and have it about once or twice a year. I had chunks of warm, toasty chicharrón in a cazuela during our last night in Medellin. Seen here. Pronounced: chee-cha-rone
Other ingredients: Avocados!
The weather in Medellin is very much like ours in San Diego, if not, better! A few reasons could be is that Medellin gets plenty of rain, the city is not going through a drought and as a result, the expensive cost of water isn’t forcing small avocado growers out of business. So it’s no surprise that avocados are not only abundant in Medellin, but also large, cheap, and delicious! You can purchase a huge avocado for under a buck and it’ll be enough to make an generous avocado salad for four. To pronounce avocado in Spanish, aguacate, say: ou-wha-ka-teh.
If I left anything out, let me know and I’ll write it out for you in my best phonetic English.
I’ve gotten requests for Cuba and I have been working on it. My challenge with it is wording my frustrations about the Cuban people. The country itself is gorgeous and the people there mean well but I’m trying to find a nice way to say, “When they learn that you’re a tourist, they will see you as a walking dollar sign.”
Cuba is perhaps the most interesting country that I’ve ever been to. The double currency, the old Chevrolet cars (we rode in a 1949 for hours), the faded paint from the buildings, will all make good talking points. (If you have any specific questions, please ask.) James will contribute his thoughts on a separate blog. He has lived there for a few months and has written a lot about it. I’ll feature him next time. He has been writing far longer than I have and he reads a lot of literature (on top of is morning New York Times). You’ll admire his style.
Also, don’t forget to subscribe to this blog by clicking “Follow” on the bottom right corner. James and I are backpacking through the north of Colombia. We just spent two full days in Barranquilla, next is Santa Marta then a long bus ride to Cartagena. As you can see, with working, writing and backpacking, I’m a little tight on time. I haven’t even had the time to read the article about Jorge Ramos’s interview the Donald Trump. I’ve had much less time to read my new Sue Grafton novel. So I will no longer blast you all an email when I write something new!
After you “Follow” me, check out the photos of our trip in Barranquilla below.