So we’ll start by admitting the obvious: Colombian food is mediocre. Not bad. Not disgusting. Just mediocre. Often bland, rarely varied, almost never imaginative.
Four letters pretty much sum up the indictment: ACPM. That’s arroz, carne, papa, maduro. Or for you gringos too lazy to crack that Spanish textbook, rice, meat, potato, plantain.
To Anglo ears, apart from leaden feeling that comes from imagining all that starch—Rice and potatoes? Really? With every meal?—the whole concept smacks of cooking-by-template. Heck, even the robotic acronym comes off as weirdly Orwellian, like some freeze-dried MRE you’d find Winston Smith making faces at as Julia sidles up to him in the ministry canteen. But incredibly, in Colombia, those initials are a badge of cultural pride, embracing everything one could possibly want in a repast. There a whole “culture” of ACPM exists, a glorious celebration of culinary dullness that, while incomprehensible to outsiders, for locals evokes images of warm togetherness and gatherings en familia, meals made en casa and amor de mamá.
A no-fail culinary protocol, to be followed again. And again. And again.
Walk into any corrientazo (cheap fixed-menu restaurant) at lunch hour. Grab a seat. Watch as the señora who runs the place lays before you each of those utilitarian components.
Potato-heavy broth. White rice, without garlic. Meat, innocent of marinade or any potentially stimulating spices. Plantains, soggy with oil.
Food designed for one purpose: to fill. In the sense of occupying space in the belly.
To Colombians, however, it’s pure ambrosia. Whisper “ACPM” to the suavest, most globe-trotting rolo or the slinkiest, Miami-club-haunting paisa, and in no time flat, Pavlovian circuits will have him or her salivating, as nostalgia for la abuelita’s home cooking wafts up from the deepest recesses of Proustian memory.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m no foodie elitist. I have no problem with ACPM. Indeed, it constituted my near-daily fare in the Chapinero cheapies I frequented during my time in the capital. There, you get a soup, juice, ACPM, and maybe salad for all of two bucks. Depending on the weekday and the chef’s proneness to flights of extravagance, they might even go crazy and substitute lentils or spaghetti for the P or A.
Also, be it said, it takes exactly one afternoon trudging through a sprawling finca in the thin air of the Andes to make clear how such a diet evolved. Protein, extra starch for energy, that bit of sweetness at the end: at 8,000 feet, the body cries out for such fast-burning caloric fuel. Which is to say that Colombian food, like its U.S. counterpart, openly flaunts its earthy, agricultural roots.
And yet, and yet.
Colombian cuisine may be comforting in its sameness, but after the seventh or eighth helping in a week, simplicity can become monotony. The palate yearns for new horizons.
Hence this list. It’s a tally of eateries I discovered in Bogotá that saved my life when the non-stop barrage of ACPM became just too much. When my taste buds were crying out for stimulation. For that exotic luxury known as flavor.
Because after all, aren’t flavor and humankind’s longing for it what gave birth to Colombia in the first place?
Had Europeans not been willing to shell out vast fortunes for spices from the Orient, old Chris Columbus would never have had a motive for sailing west to acquire them, and the country christened in his honor would never have been.
One caveat. This isn’t a fine-dining guide. In my experience, upscale establishments in Bogotá are almost never worth their exaggerated price. Plagued by the same blandness that hobbles the corrientazos, they just add zeroes to that already ridiculous-looking thousand-peso bill. Best to scout around and find cheaper, tastier options.
Hey, chances are, once you boil it down, it’s ACPM anyway.
La Candelaria and Downtown
1. Capital Cocina y Café (Calle 10, 2-99)
If there’s a case to be made for Colombian cuisine, this place makes it. Updated takes on local platos típicos, plus a few fusion creations of the chef’s own. Pork chops are a sure bet, and don’t shy away from the pulpo (octopus) appetizer. Unlike most Candelaria eateries, it’s open for dinner as well as lunch.
2. Enchiladas (Calle 10, 2-12)
This Mexican cantina was my lifeline. Whenever the Bogotá blandness had me suicidal, I’d head up that steep Candelaria slope and order the General Lee, which is the madre of all combo platters. Green and red enchiladas, a quesadilla, chilaquiles, and tostadas, all for ten bucks. No joke: this place could easily hold its own in Mexico’s D.F.
3. La Romana (Av. Jiménez 6-65)
Sucker that I am for old-style Italian red-sauce joints, when a rolo friend told me this place has been around since 1964, I had to go. Nor did I regret it. Excellent agnolotti, and one of the very few decent lasagnas I’ve had in Latin America. Branches exist in Carrera Séptima and Chapinero, but the Av. Jiménez location is the one with the atmosphere.
4. Pastelería Florida (Carrera 7, 21-46)
More bait for the tradition-enamored. Founded in 1936 and set on a busy block of the Carrera Séptima, this pastry shop has uniformed waiters, chocolate santafereño (hot chocolate with cheese), and a beauty-pageant of dulces to provoke the passersby in the entryway’s glass case.
5. La Puerta Falsa (Calle 11, 6-50)
By my calculations, this restaurant is the oldest in Latin America. Born in 1816, and handed down through the same family ever since, it takes its name from a walled-up or false side door of the Catedral Primada right across the street. Why go? One reason: the tamales. Big and savory, they conceal whole chicken thighs, pork chunks, and garbanzos.
6. Restaurante Marino (Calle 12, 8-46)
Mojarra (sea bream fried whole, head, eyes, and all) is a Colombian dish that escapes the ACPM stranglehold. Done right, it’s scrumptious, with fragrant chunks of snowy meat and a gossamer-light coating. The chefs at this utterly nondescript downtown hole-in-the-wall do it right.
7. La Pola (Calle 19b, 1-85)
If you want to taste ACPM at its best, hit up this picturesque corrientazo near the Universidad de los Andes. Set in a lovely manor with skylit patio, it boasts a fragrant ajiaco, Colombia’s hearty potato-based national soup, plus a decent-sized steak and salad for about six bucks. The arepas are actually edible here.
8. Quinua and Amaranto (Calle 11, 2-95)
Desperate for vegetarian options in meat-and-carbs Bogotá? Make a beeline to this open-kitchen oasis run by two lovely ladies, just up the street from the Plaza Bolívar. I’m no vegan, and I still frequented this place for the quinoa empanadas, corn soup, bean salad, and excellent guac. Lunch only.
1. La Tapería (Carrera 4a, 26d-12)
No, the tapas in this tiny tavern aren’t authentically Spanish. But what does authenticity even mean, in the globalized hodgepodge that is the world today? Whatever: the food is good. Order the pork belly, if they happen to be serving it, and complement it with anything made of octopus and a ración of albóndigas.
1. Mini-Mal (Carrera 4a, 57-62)
The “G” in the Zona’s name means “gastronómico,” and this no-frills Pacific-oriented bistro is as experimental and foodie-friendly as it gets in staid Bogotá. The owner, a former NGO-nik turned chef, aims to introduce the exotic ingredients of his native Chocó region to an international audience; judging by the number of gringo diners when I went, he’s succeeding. Try the Vamos a la Playa, fish slices in lulo sauce with caramelized onions.
2. Cantina y Punto (Calle 66, 4a-33)
Skimpy on the portions and with ridiculous wait times at dinner, this Mexican joint nevertheless serves worthy botanas (e.g., shrimp in tamarind sauce) and tacos (try the cochinita pibil). It can’t compete with Enchiladas in Chapinero, but if you like dim lighting and pricey drinks, this place delivers.
3. Sipote Burrito (Carrera 5, 71-10)
Missing Chipotle back in the states? This Colombian knockoff does a more-than-creditable imitation. I’d argue the burritos here actually edge out the originals. Branches exist in the Centro Andino and Titan Plaza as well. That this place is even on this list is indicative of how low the bar is set, food-wise, in Bogotá.
4. Circo Terraza Zona G (Calle 73, 8-60)
Wood-fired artisanal pizzas and romantic atmosphere had me coming back to this hotel restaurant almost once a week. Best pizza in the city, at rock-bottom prices. Inside the Zona G Marriott.
5. Nazca (Calle 74, 5-28)
Maybe it’s that Peruvians in Bogotá have had to adulterate their recipes for the spice-averse Colombian palate; maybe a nefarious cabal has arranged to keep rolos in the dark about just how dull their food is. Howsoever, Peruvian restaurants in Bogotá tend to be awful. Most would find themselves shuttered after one week in Lima. This upscale joint is a respectable effort, with good tacu-tacu and rice dishes. I refuse to taste ceviche outside of Peru, however, and the price/portion ratio is decidedly unfavorable.
6. Nick’s (Carrera 4, 69-23)
Nick’s is another godsend for the Bogotá-bored. Nothing gourmet here, just terrific sandwiches and a funky retro interior that’s among the most welcoming I’ve found in Colombia. Good bets: crabmeat with Japanese mayo, roast beef, and prosciutto with manchego cheese. I turned the outdoor terrace into my second office.
1. Andres Carne de Res (Calle 82, 12-21)
Andres serves food? Yes, and believe it or not, it’s actually good. The world-famous Bogotá party palace—think TGI Friday’s on steroids, with live bands and rivers of aguardiente—pays close attention to what comes out of its kitchen. I always start with patacones con queso (fried green plantains with cheese) and then add a steak. Steer clear of the ceviches: Colombia isn’t Peru.