Cheap Eats

Mi Colombia: Five-Buck Fried Chicken and Hangover Cure Hen Soup

There are certain restaurants that you just feel like you are a part of, like the spots that feature "mi" in the name. Mi Colombia Cafeteria y Restaurante in North Beach is one of those places. The first time I visited, I parked in the rear and entered through the back door. Walking past the kitchen, I saw a cook eating a piece of steak. A very good sign. I sat at the counter, and it became clear this is the kind of place where everyone knows your name. Except I was new. The charming woman behind the counter asked for my name, introduced herself, and then shared the specials, which always include a soup du jour.

I was instantly saddened by two things: I didn't have time to eat my meal in this homey little restaurant, and it wasn't Sunday, meaning I couldn't order the hen soup, which I heard was the hangover cure. On this day, I decided to get the always-offered pollo frito ($5.50). This dish is one of the least expensive on the menu, and it comes with rice and beans. The chicken was moist, the outside had a toothsome crunch, and there was a delicious tomato and onion sauce that I couldn't get enough of. The rice was buttery, and the beans were packed with flavor. This dinner, which was just a little more than $5, was utterly delicious and so massive that I saved half for breakfast the next morning.

As soon as I left the restaurant, I thought about returning to try the hangover cure soup, to chat further with the genial woman behind the counter, and to sample more of the menu. Sure, there are plenty of nice servers and cute holes in the wall, but this place has extra charm. The restaurant is family-run and has been in the same location for 28 years. The affable woman is the owner's sister. She explained that she recently moved from Colombia and that this restaurant was responsible for funding her education and helping her immigrate to Miami.

Despite my best imbibing efforts Saturday night, I arrived at Mi Colombia on Sunday not hung over but bursting with excitement to try the sancocho de gallina -- traditional Colombian hen soup. This dish comes with a plate of rice, along with avocado and a lime wedge. The soup itself had a large hunk of poultry, yuca, potato, a chunk of corn on the cob, a plantain, and a topping of cilantro and green onion.

My only objection to this dish and some of the other food I saw delivered at Mi Colombia was the plate itself, which fails to contain the food. Every plate had some meat, chicken, sausage, or fish hanging off the edge, and this soup was no exception. It is one thing to have a full bowl of soup, but given meat that had to be removed from the bone and vegetables that needed to be cut, I made a mess splashing around. But it was a small price to pay to the hen-soup gods. I began spooning in bits of rice, and in no time I was full. Between the starchiness of the vegetables, the roux of the broth, and the rice, I was stuffed and saw why the hung over would want to delve into this bowl -- a great and satisfying meal at a bargain.

Because I'm now a regular, the same delightful woman behind the counter addresses me by name. The last time I was there, she said she was so happy to serve me again. I couldn't stop staring at the giant meringue (suspiros) cookies, so I ordered several. She revealed that her mom adds a hint of lemon. I smiled at the homeyness, like when you are hanging out with a new friend and her mom bakes you cookies for your first play date together. The treat's exterior crumbled and dissolved in my mouth, and the center was still a bit gooey, like a marshmallow that sticks to your fingers. My new friend asked for the verb in English to describe the melt-in-your-mouth consistency of these glorious cookies made with egg whites and sugar. I immediately said, "Dissolve," and then we shook our heads. She said, "That's too scientific." I agreed and told her I would think of something more romantic. "It's your homework," she proclaimed. I can't wait to return with a better response.

Mi Colombia offers the kindest service I have ever encountered at a counter or elsewhere. It also serves the most delicious food in enormous quantities at a price that leaves you feeling like you got the deal of the century. Most important, it is a place where you feel like you are a part of the family and thus a part of the restaurant.

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Carina Ost