Colombian Gold

When a journalist friend returned to the United States recently after spending a few years in Berlin, my dining companion and I were sure she'd be longing for such all-American favorites as Southern fried chicken, T-bone steaks, mashed potatoes and gravy, juicy burgers, and apple pie. But when we invited her to choose from among Miami's long list of restaurants, she expressed an urgent craving for Colombian food.

Which was not as odd as it first seemed. Before her stint in Berlin, the long-time periodista had lived in Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, and visited a number of other Latin American countries. To her, Colombian cuisine is quite simply the best.

Fortunately, I had a place in mind. Once while riding in a cab with a Colombian driver, I asked him the name of his favorite Colombian restaurant. When he instantly replied, "Monserrate," I jotted the name down. As it turned out, he sent us in the right direction. Restaurante Monserrate is a gema - a cheerful place with excellent food and a staff as sparkling as Colombian esmeraldas.

Ensconced in Little Havana for the past two years, Monserrate is as much a community center-general store as it is a restaurant - there's a deli counter, shelves stocked with Colombian foodstuffs, and newspapers from Cali and Bogota are for sale. Vases of fresh flowers are stationed along the counter and on each table, and photographs and prints of Colombia adorn the walls. But the piece de resistance is an electronic display board that flashes the exchange rate of dollars to pesos in Colombia, followed by various messages. The writer behind these messages - one of which warned: "If you go out of the parking lot, don't go right because the police are giving fines" - was as prolific as the three of us put together, and far more entertaining.

But eventually we tore our eyes away from the message board long enough to read the menu. In addition to the two dozen regularly available items is a list of daily specials, and, unlike so-called specials at many Miami restaurants, Monserrate's really are favorite tipicas (traditional dishes) at prices lower than similar items on the standard menu.

Various soups are also available each day, as well as a selection of side orders more varied than in most Latin restaurants. Colombians are fond of a variety of beef dishes and sausages, including morcilla (blood sausage), the more common-to-Miami pork rind, chorizo, liver, and steaks, all of which are offered here. As well, they have raised their famous cornmeal-based griddlecakes, called arepas, to a fine art, one which Monserrate practices to good effect.

Our houseguest ordered beef tongue with rice and yuca, plus a number of side dishes for us to share: pork rinds - or as they are more accurately translated on the menu, "pork rings," because the Colombian tradition is to leave some of the meat attached to the rind - and papas chorreadas, a dish of boiled, tiny potatoes from Colombia (the restaurant has them flown in), an empanada, and some of the aforementioned arepas topped with butter and cheese and broiled.

Unaware that the side dishes ordered by our guest would be so plenteous, my dining companion ordered the bandeja montanera ($6.50), a mixed dinner consisting of chopped steak, white rice, red beans, more pork rings, an arepa, and a large fried egg. He was presented with so much food, in fact, that rather than poaching from the plates of others - as is his habit - he was inviting poachers to his plate. I was of little help in this department, having chosen the sobrebarriga a la criolla ($7.90), a beef brisket stewed in a Creole sauce and served with rice and sweet bananas. I ordered it thinking it would be a more modest selection than my dining companion's, but it seemed to contain at least a pound of meat, so he was left to contend with his feast without me.

None of the eating was hard work, though. Each dish - and I sampled all of them - was tasty. The side of pork rings disappeared quickly as the three of us dipped them into the best chimichurri we've ever eaten in Miami. The mixture of parsley, olive oil, and garlic was infused with scallions and cilantro, lending it an added jolt, and the red salsa served alongside the pork rings was even more piquant, with its blend of tomatoes, onions, and jalapenos. Between spicy bites, we refreshed ourselves with sips of Cerveza Aguila, a brew from Barranquilla ($1.75 per bottle, the same as domestic).

Moments after the first two entrees arrived, the waiter brought our guest's order, apologizing as he set down her heavily laden plate. "We thought we ran out of tongue," he joked, "but we cut this one off the chef." The meat was perfectly tender, blanketed with a sauce embellished with whole kernel corn, and accompanied by three large, steaming chunks of boiled yuca. Our guest gave it rave reviews, and I had to take her word for it - my platter of tender brisket was rapidly filling me to capacity.

An unusual array of desserts tempted our spirit of adventure: antojos (little fancy pastries) included cookies, wafers, and cheese slices; three fig desserts are listed - figs with cheese, figs in syrup, and figs in sweet cream - plus a rice custard, flan, and arequipe, a Colombian sweet prepared by blending sugar with sweet cream skimmed from milk, then cooking the mixture for five hours to thicken and darken it. As ubiquitous as flan may be in Miami, it is not a dietary staple in Berlin, so our friend found it to be the perfect ending to her meal.

We left Monserrate joking all the way to the door with our waiter. Our houseguest told him she didn't believe the story about the chef's tongue. "The proof is that nobody's at a loss for words here," she told him in Spanish.

"That's true," he quipped. "But who do you think is communicating on the electronic billboard?"

RESTAURANTE MONSERRATE
435 SW 12th Ave; 324-9730. Hours: Daily from 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

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