Over the years, I have linguistically stumbled my way through restaurants in Paris, Rome, Florence, Copenhagen and Olathe (where a freckled waiter once asked me if I wanted some "grated parmy-zan" over my "la-zagg-neya" I had no idea what he was talking about), but I felt somewhat more confident at the charming new Rincon Colombiano Restaurante. Still, a bit of conversational Spanish would have come in handy on my first visit to the place.
At Rincon Colombiano, the menu is in Inglés, but I felt a frustrating failure to communicate with the handsome waiter Aldemar. The Colombian-born Aldemar has been in Kansas for less than a year, and his command of English is better than my rudimentary grasp of Spanish. Still, there were unexpected glitches along the way. Most were pretty comical, and nearly all involved Aldemar saying no when he meant yes I have the reverse problem, but that's another story or saying no when he just didn't understand the question.
Before I even set foot in the tiny restaurant, I called ahead to make sure that the place accepted credit cards. The answer was perfectly lucid: No. So I paid for that night's meal with cash. It was only on my second visit that I spied an electronic credit-card machine mounted on a wall near the kitchen, where the restaurant's chef and owner, Juan Carlos Lambrana, was a one-man show.
"You take credit cards now, yes?" I asked. Aldemar shook his head. Another customer explained it for me: "What he means is, this place doesn't take Discover or American Express."
Ah, everything is illuminated! What I mean is, my experience with Colombian food is, as they might say in Bogota, pequeñito smaller even than my knowledge of Colombia, which is limited to the occasional news report about terrorism, cocaine and those wild and crazy guys in the old Medellin cartel. But Rincon Colombiano (rincón translates as corner) is a good place for a crash course in Colombian culture, not only through the cuisine but also via the television set perched atop the big stainless-steel refrigerator in the dining room. It's set to either Latin American news programs with exceptionally attractive reporters and news anchors or Spanish soap operas, with exceptionally attractive actors who are either yelling or crying.
On my first visit to the storefront café, I was joined by my friends Bob and Carol Ann. We took a table (there are only 11 in the place) near the TV so Bob could watch the soap opera while we ate. "I don't understand a word they're saying," he said. "But I want to see why this actor can't stop weeping."
Carol Ann is bored by soap operas, so she never looked up from the menu, which was far more fascinating to her. "Lots of meat," she noted. "Plantains, soups and chicken breats."
Breasts, I corrected her. "Well it says breats on the menu," she snapped. And so it did. The menu also lists the five different soups offered every day, including that night's intriguingly named "meet balls soup." We didn't meet it or eat it, alas, because when I asked Aldemar about the sopa del día, he just shook his head. What he meant was ... oh, never mind.
I ordered churrasco, described as "shread steak neither sliced nor shredded here better known in South America as Brazilian-style barbecue (where restaurants called churrascaria de rodízio send waiters dashing from table to table with skewers of grilled meats, slicing off portions for customers). Rincon Colombiano's version is a thin slice of perfectly grilled beef served sizzling on a metal platter, accompanied by a little mound of white rice; two golden, fried plantains; and a tiny "salad" of shredded lettuce, two cucumber slices, a few bits of white onion and tomato slices.
The best thing about the dish was the dollop of chimichurri that came with it, a delectable sauce of olive oil, herbs, garlic and lemon, which I slathered all over the meat. It didn't pack the punch of the peppery aji pique, the spicy, vinegary sauce offered in plastic jam jars on every table in the joint. A splash of chimichurri takes a fried plantain to a whole new dimension.
Carol Ann went for the chicken breats, er, breasts, of course, especially after Aldemar told her that the dish, pechuga a la criolla, was one of the house specialties. It's a truly excellent dish, the chicken plump and fork-tender and served afloat a pud-dle of tomato-based criolla sauce. Bob didn't see eggs on the description of the bisteca a caballo, but the so-called beef "filet" (that might be an overstatement; it looked like flank steak) was topped with two fried huevos and drenched in a slightly oily tomato sauce. He liked the eggs better than the beef.
On my next visit to the restaurant, I brought along my friend Patrick and my new pals, Colombian-born Mauricio and Ivonne Garcia, and their teenage daughter, Andrea. The Garcias, who live in Lenexa, are thrilled that Rincon Colombiano has opened; now they can indulge in real home-style fare. Ivonne says the spotless restaurant is in both style and cuisine more rustic than you'd find in Bogota, but where else in town is she going to find a bowl of mondongo? I started to say that I had seen a dirty movie with a similar title, but Patrick kicked me under the table.
"Not everyone likes it," Ivonne said, offering me a spoonful of the thick, pungently aromatic tripe soup. I tasted it and thought the flavor was lovely but the fragrance wasn't. A more luscious sopa was the cazuela de mariscos that Mauricio ordered (it's not on the menu, he says, but Lambrana will make it if you ask), a creamy Colombian variation on cioppino that's loaded with shrimp, squid, mussels and chopped fish.
We started the meal with crunchy empañadas filled with beef and potatoes and a delicious discovery for me, crunchy bits of fried pork skins called chicharrones that are addictively good, particularly drenched with pique sauce. Andrea liked this treat so much, she ordered bandeja paisa, a dish that combines all kinds of Colombian delicacies: beef, sausage, pork skins, fried plantains and a tidy pillar of rice topped with a fried egg.
Eggs, Ivonne explained, are a popular culinary accessory in Colombia, along with the crunchy tostones, fried plantains that are smashed, then fried again.
I've never seen a flatter piece of red snapper (that's what the menu said it was, anyway) than the cardboard-thin filet of pargo a la plancha that Patrick ordered. "It doesn't taste like fish, really," he said. "It needs lime juice," Ivonne said, motioning for Aldemar to bring over some slices to squeeze over the fish. It helped, sort of. Dry, but citrusy.
I was tempted to order a Colombian breakfast (which the place serves all day) but was lured by the seductive description of a chicken breast sided with boiled yucca and potatoes and smothered in a mildly spiced tomato sauce.
After eating so much food, dessert seemed vaguely excesivo, but Mauricio explained that Aldemar told him he'd made the tres leches cake himself, so we had to taste the wildly rich pastry, heavy with cream, condensed milk and evaporated milk. The menu lists a four-milk version, too, but we were too intimidated to order it. We also shared the very nice flan, dripping with a dark caramel sauce, and a fluffy rice pudding dusted with cinnamon. All of them were fantastic.
Mauricio told me that Rincon Colombiano is his favorite restaurant in Kansas City, along with Piropos, the Argentine steakhouse, and the all-American Cheesecake Factory. Now that I've discovered this attractive little place, I think it's one of my favorites, too. Even if I can't habla Español.