Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Eating BIG in Cartagena

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties

- Exploring Colombia's Caribbean Hub

Last March I got the chance to travel to Colombia to witness the marriage of a good friend. It was the perfect time as we were still in the Polar Vortex stages of winter. Cartagena would be the city where the wedding was taking place. It's the major port city of Colombia's Caribbean Coast. It's a historic city with tons of beauty both in the land and the people. With this being my first trip to South America I was very excited to check another country off and even better I got to do so with some longtime friends. If you're trying to figure out a warm place to visit this winter I would highly rec Cartagena to anyone looking for something a bit more substantial than the usual Caribbean winter destinations.

Sights from Cartagena (click pics to enhance)

Cartagena's tourism mostly revolves around the Old Town. Also known as the Walled City this is where most of the city's history can be traced back to. It's lined with beautiful colonial buildings and colorful homes and businesses. Most everything you read about as far as as hotels and restaurants will be located inside of the Walled City. Outside of it is more laid back as inside is filled with tourists and where theres tourists theres locals catering to said tourists. The street life within the Walled City is wonderful. This is where you'll comes across the city's famous fruit ladies. Do tip for pictures.

Sights from Cartagena

So what about the food? It's really good! Different from the rest of Colombia in that it's very influenced by Spanish, African, and indigenous cooking. Cartagena might not be the country's capital but it's probably Colombia's culinary gem. Like any other coastal cuisine it's heavy on fish. The tropical climate means you'll comes across some amazing fruits. These are not to be missed in juice form. Seriously the best thing going here might be the fruit. It could be reason enough to visit if you love good fruit as much as I do. Pretty much every spot in town makes some sort of amazing fruit drinks. The seafood was stellar. Outside of Lima this might be the best city in the world to eat ceviche.

 Sights from Cartagena
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La Cocina De Pepina

First meal in Cartagena was some cooking from Colombia’s Caribbean coast. An order of shrimp de aguacate (w/ crackers) was perfect on a hot and humid day. Not exactly soup weather but I had to try an order of the popular soup known as Mote de Queso as this place was said to make a great bowl. Made with a local type of yam called ñame and queso Costeño this is quintessential Colombian-Caribbean cooking. No it’s not the most instagramable food out there but I’m no @foodgod.

Colombian-Caribbean food at La Cocina De Pepina
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Restuarante La Mulata

Here's another typical Colombian-Caribbean type spot. It's run by a younger crowd but they dont try to change anything up as far as the food. We were here for the popular plates of African-Caribbean inspired dishes. An order of fried fish with plantains and brown rice was typical plato del caribe. 

Fried Fish at La Mulata
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La Paleteria

Paleta Popsicles are as popular as ever. As they should be. There's no limits to the flavors one can make with a paleta. Thus in heavy fruit growing countries like Colombia you can find some rarely seen flavors. Head to La Paleteria in the Old City when you need to cool down from the heavy heat. They have an array of flavors many of them made with fruits local to the region. We went three times.

Paletas at La Paleteria
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Hotel Boutique Casona del Colegio

My wife found us a fantastic place to stay. She likes to search around for newly opened properties as you can usually get a deal before the word gets out online and they raise their prices to match their tripadvisor score. We had one minor problem in that the AC wasn't at full strength one night and they insisted we come down for complimentary breakfast the next morning. We did and were treated to a bomb meal with local flair. This Colombian breakfast was full of starches featuring yuca, plantains, and an extra crispy golden piece of pork that cracked like cracklins. The hotel itself was beautiful and the staff was super helpful. I'd happily go back and if I did I'd gladly pay to start my day with this dish.

Colombian Breakfast at Hotel Boutique Casona del Colegio
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Quero Arepa

There would be quite a few Arepas this weekend. They even made an appearance as the late night snack at the wedding we attended. After a nice night of rum running I met a buddy at this local Arepa shop that gets lots of love online. It's a cute little space with a colorful vibe in both decor and the food. Colombians and Venezuelans will go to war over who's arepas are better. I believe these were a mixture of the two styles which don't sway all that differently save for maybe the fillings. I went with a pretty traditional Venezuelan combo of shredded beef, black beans, bananas, and cheese. It was really good but even better were the fresh pressed juices. I had a couple of those and felt great.

Arepa at Quero Arepa
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El Marranito Feliz

We came across this little street side grilling setup and stopped for sausage. That's what Chicago people do. This spot wasn't on my radar but the little cartoon of the pig paired with those sausages on the grill made it a must stop for us. My friend got a mixed sausage platter served in bite size pieces with some terrific dipping sauces. Don't hesitate to try the local spots like this. They stay busy.

Streetside Sausage
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El Boliche Cebicheria

Cartagena has two popular ceviche spots and this is the less popular of the two. We came here as we were able to get a table for eight people pretty much upon arrival. The other place will most always have a line to get in. We never made it over to La Cevicheria but I hear both spots are great. El Boliche most certainly is. We had a lovely little lunch with each dish popping with the fresh flavors that make ceviche a wonderful snack in warm weather cities like this. Don’t miss the smoke steamed coconut fish dish which was one of the most unique things I ate on the trip. The crab empanadas are supposed to be really good but they had sold out by the time we were there. But all the ceviches and also the octopus and potatoes dish were great. You can end up trying a bunch as they're tapas sized.

Meal at El Boliche Cebicheria
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La Perla

Another lunch in the Old City where it can feel like you’re walking under a broiler in the oven. So we needed something super fresh and called on a local Peruvian chef to supply us with this. An order of Nikkei style tiradito was phenomenal. Nikkei cuisine being the fusion of Japanese traditions with Peruvian ingredients. Tiradito being one of the most popular dishes in Nikkei cooking. It’s thin sliced sashimi that’s sauced upon ordering and then served immediately. Consider it the lesser known sibling of ceviche. Speaking of which an order of traditional Peruvian ceviche was exactly what one can expect from a well trained Peruvian chef with a restaurant in a coastal town. Some passion fruit juice rounded out one of the freshest lunches I’ve had in a minute. La Perla is a terrific choice.

Tiradito and Ceviche at La Perla
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Carmen Restaurante

My wife wanted to check this contemporary restaurant for lunch. It's located in a beautiful colonial era home and there's quite a few options for how you want to enjoy your meal. They have a beautiful cocktail bar as well as an indoor air conditioned dining room and a courtyard in the middle of it all. The service was really nice and the menu had quite a few tempting options. We settled on a perfectly cooked piece of octopus with a pistachio aji sauce over a griddle cooked piece of yuca. Even better was the candied duck confit. If you're looking for a nice white tablecloth type meal this is it.

Lunch at Carmen Restaurante
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Cocteleria El Buen Sabor

Right outside of the Old City you'll find a street full of food vendors. Many of them selling the type of ceviche locals tend to gravitate more towards. This is a super traditional style with ketchup and cocktail sauce being the focal points along with whatever seafood you choose. It's always served with saltines on the side which work great with a scoop of the ceviche. Nothing fancy here as you can see from the ceviche which comes served in a styrofoam cup. But I like it. It's a great snack on a hot day.

Ceviche at Cocteleria El Buen Sabor
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Sierva Maria

There's no single dish more associated with Cartagena than the Arepa con Huevo. This Caribbean-Colombian dish is commonly sold on the streets and they can be found all over town. They even made an appearance as the late nite snack at the wedding I was at. I liked them so much I went to seek one out the next morning. Sierva Maria is one of the common mentions for the best place to get Arepa Con Huevo. I had walked to try a famous street stall but I never did find it. That said as my buddy who lives in Colombia told me it's all about finding a spot where they're frying them fresh. That's the case at Sierva Maria where they're delivered piping hot. Corncakes are fried in oil and then split and an egg is cooked inside. If you order them con carne they're stuffed with ground beef. This was the most memorable bite of the trip. I've been aching for one since returning. The sauces (tomato salsa / sour cream) served on side were both instrumental in the overall satisfaction of this dish.

Arepa Con Huevo at Sierva Maria
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Harvey Restaurante

Away from the Old City over by the beaches and big hotels there's a strip full of spots. It feels a bit touristy and a little like South Beach but there's plenty of local spots. It's not like the Colombians don't go to the beach. After what was a long night of wedding celebration (they go all night in Colombia) me and some friends took off for a hangover feast. I knew I wanted to get a hot dog while in Colombia as they take them very seriously and this Harvey Restuarante spot popped up in my search. The menu had the feel of a TGI-Friday's if it was a concept originally founded in South America. The menu was loaded with pictured options. This spread was just what the doctor ordered after a long night of celebration. You’re looking at a Colombian Hot Dog, Salchipapas, Seafood Fried Rice, and Fried Plantains. What’s on the perro hawaiano (hot dog) you ask? Salsa rosado, aji sauce, pineapple sauce, onions, guava paste, shoestring potatoes, bacon, cheese, maybe more. BOMB!

Food Spread at Harvey Restaurante
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Kiosk #7 Alejandro

We found some chairs and an empty table at the beach. We sat and took in some sun as well as some seafood. There were quite a few food stands serving different dishes on the sand. Most of them offering whole fried fish. A handful of them were recognizable but Sawfish was one we were unsure of as far as ever trying it. We got one of them and watched as the lady chopped its head off seasoned it up and dropped it into a pot where it fried with some garlic and onions. The fish was like mackerel.

Fried Sawfish in Cartagena
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Submarino Ceviche

Here was another locals spot for ceviche in the beach area. Sitting on an island between a few streets and some parks is this little walk in shop slanging all the ceviches. The owner is obviously a big baseball fan as there's MLB stuff throughout the store. We tried the mixto which is a little bit of everything made fresh and served with the standard saltine crackers. Again a great snack.

Ceviche at Submarino Ceviche
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Restaurante El Muelle

I found this spot sitting on the water at what's virtually the end of the popular hotel and restaurant road at Laguito Beach. People kept mentioning a whole prawn in curry dish and it looked great so me and a group of friends went over to eat dinner here. It's a large space that caters to tourists and locals alike. You can hang on the beach or under the restaurants two floor canopies. But they were out of the curry shrimps. Major buzzkill though the beautiful sunset and time spent with friends healed that pretty quickly. We tried a bunch of seafood stuff and none of it was bad. We liked it for what it was.

Seafood spread at El Muelle
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Plaza de la Trinidad

Our last night in town was a Sunday but if you had to guess from the atmosphere you may have said Saturday. It seemed like locals like to end their weekends by hanging out in some of the city's major squares where people eat, dance, and laugh into the evening. I came upon a party at Plaza de La Trinidad and was sucked in by the energy and smells of meats cooking on the grills that surrounded the park. There was a little stage where a group of people were dancing. They were being joined by a huge crowd on the square that were mimicking their every move. Check out my instagram videos @chibbqking to get a better idea of this public party that everyone is invited to. Street food vendors are lined up and the options of burgers seemed to be biggest. At least 4/5 carts had a large number of patties grilling away while the vendors piled them with trimmings when ready. Like the hot dogs the burgers in Colombia come loaded with toppings. Delicious after a few cold ones from a beer vendor.

Street Food Vendor at Plaza de la Trinidad
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La Esquina Del Pandebono

On the morning of our departure I got up early and took one last walk around the Old Town, and then one last shower before checking out. La Esquina Del Pandebona is a 24 hour establishment that sells Colombian pastries and juices/smoothies. It was the perfect place to hit up before the airport in that I was able to get one last extra refreshing fresh squeezed juice and also some wonderful buñuelos aka Colombian cheese fritters. Shitty pics but Colombia has great pastries and none more pleasing than buñuelos fresh from the oven. Head here whenever as they make a great snack any time of day. I enjoyed them on the plane. That's it for this trip. Thanks again Brad, Silvana, + families.

Display Case at La Esquina Del Pandebono
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Note: To find the locations of all the spots featured in this post, as well as places I didn't make it to, please click HERE for my google maps guide to Cartagena.

See ya next time @chibbqking

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