2851 Imperial Avenue, Grant Hill
In spite of the ever-rising price of gas, I try to get out of my neighborhood(s) and see what’s going on elsewhere. And so, one morning about three months ago, I took a drive along the southern border of Grant Hill, up colorful Imperial Avenue. I’d heard that the long-standing farmers’ market was being turned into a Walmart and wondered what other changes were in store.
A few of the food stands that had once been located within the market had moved out to the street, a good sign. A few blocks on, next to El Savadoreño (a fixture on Imperial) I noticed the tricolor yellow, blue, and red of the Colombian flag painted below a sign: “Antojitos Colombianos.” This was a surprise, as I’d been aware of only one Colombian restaurant in San Diego; a decent place, but nothing special. It was about 8:00 a.m. and Antojitos Colombianos looked closed. I made a mental note to return, then promptly forgot about it.
A few months later, the missus and I were craving something different. Suddenly those dormant synapses fired and I mentioned the “Colombian place.” A short drive down I-5 and up Imperial and we were there.
The interior of Antojitos Colombianos looks a bit disorganized at first, maybe even disheveled. Random tchotchkes are scattered about, Colombian and South American grocery items line a glass case, and a flat-screen television is mounted on one of the walls in the dining area. I’ve gotta be honest, though, the decor kind of grows on you.
On our first visit, I went all in and ordered the bandeja paisa, the classic Colombian gut-busting platter (bandeja) of protein and carbs that many consider the national dish of Colombia. This isn’t quite the 13-item classic, but the huge plate of rice, peruano beans flavored with pork, chorizo, fried plantain, arepa, beef, chicharron, avocado (you do need something green, right?), and rice topped with a fried egg is more than enough to leave you crying, ¡No mas! Having eaten this dish before, I was surprised at how tender the thinly sliced sirloin was; usually, it’s the texture of shoe leather. The empanadas looked as if they might be greasy but were crisp and light, with a mild chew. The filling of beef and potatoes was well seasoned. It was accompanied by an aji (hot sauce) that wasn’t too spicy, adding an acid component to cut the richness. The arepa here isn’t stuffed, just a simple griddled corn cake with nutty tones. We ordered it with chorizo (which differs from the sausage that usually accompanies a bandeja paisa): it was spicy and dense, a wonderfully flavored sausage. The missus adored the aborrajado, a fried plantain stuffed with cheese.
Subsequent visits have turned up other decent dishes. One is a papa rellena the size of a softball, the exterior crisp, the inner layer full of potato goodness (the filling of saffron rice and chicken could have used more flavoring). The chuleta de cerdo, a pork cutlet, was well tenderized, breaded, and perfectly fried, though the taste was routine.
After a couple of visits, we found our favorite item on the menu: lengua en salsa, a beautifully moist slice of fork-tender beef tongue, cooked to perfection and topped with a tangy salsa of sautéed onions and peppers. It doesn’t get much better than this. The lengua has a deep, beefy flavor, stopping just short of a taste like offal. If you’ve ever been a victim of waxy, off-tasting beef tongue, I’d recommend this version. Another recommendation: when faced with the choice of papas fritas (french fries) or yuca frita, choose the latter.
We love the way we’ve been treated at Antojitos Colombianos, the casual warmth. On our first visit, the restaurant crew consisted of one young lady who did everything in the half-filled room: wait, cook, and bus, all with amazing efficiency. She gave us her time and attention, explaining items on the menu, then stopping by later to see how we enjoyed what we had. She even made recommendations for other dishes.
The other person we’ve seen cooking here is the owner, Javier. His dishes come out more masculine, more seasoned, and, man, does he know how to fry. Javier, when faced with my question of “what to order,” did not treat me like el gabacho, but went right for the lengua.
The tall gentleman who often runs the front of house is Javier’s cousin’s husband…I think. He doesn’t speak much English, but his warmth and friendliness transcends language. I once saw him show an Asian couple how to wrap napkins around their empanadas so as not to burn themselves. When things slow down, Javier will come out and stop by the tables to chat. This is how I found out that they are from Cali, Colombia.
On our second visit, a well-dressed gentleman — tie and all — brought us two menus. We thought he worked at the restaurant, but then he sat down to finish his dinner. We realized that, when you’ve been here more than twice, you learn how things work and feel completely at home. There must be any number of excellent family-run restaurants in San Diego that fly under the radar. Antojitos Colombianos is one.
Antojitos Colombianos, 2851 Imperial Avenue, Grant Hill, 619-237-0396
Fare: Traditional Colombian favorites
Must Try: Lengua en salsa; empanadas: “For Mexican food here, you have to have tacos. For Colombian food, you need empanadas,” says Javier.
Need to know: No lot, street-parking only