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Second Helpings 

Colombian restaurant spawns a sibling in Pineville

Heartbreakingly beautiful is how an acquaintance once described his homeland, Colombia. While many people know of its famed coffee and Nobel-winner Gabriel García Márquez' stories of unrelenting love, few are acquainted with Colombian cuisine. News of its civil unrest and kidnappings have prevented the South American country from becoming much of a tourist spot and its cuisine has been obscured.

Charlotte, however, has three Colombian restaurants. The newest, Los Paisas in Pineville, is the sibling to its popular flagship on South Boulevard. Owners William and Maria Hernández opened the Pineville eatery two months ago. The new location is larger than the original, with 68 seats, but the menus are similar. The owners' nephew John Hernández, the Pineville manager, noted the rotisserie chicken dishes at the original site are not included on the Pineville menu.

The Hernándezes named the restaurants for the people from their area of Colombia. (Calling the restaurant Los Paisas in Charlotte is similar to a Carolina family calling a restaurant in Bogotá Tar Heels.) Paisas are from Antioiquia, Caldas and Risaralda, in northwest Colombia. The illustration on the menu is of a male paisa in a woven sash tasting a flavorful stew.

The interior of the Pineville spot has been spruced up considerably compared with the original location. Side walls are brightly painted with shuttered false windows giving the restaurant an illusion of eating in an open-air courtyard. Fincas, or farms, where Colombians grow coffee and potatoes and raise cattle, are painted in colorful variety. Two overhanging televisions alternate between soccer games and the Univision soap operas, both of which at times galvanize the entire dining room.

Colombian food is not spicy: condiments are added by the diner. Los Paisas offers a trio: jalapeño salsa (pureed chilies and onions), which looks like liquefied wasabi and is the hottest; a milder tomato-based sauce; and a complex herbaceous Argentine-styled chimichurri (parsley, oil and garlic) used by Colombians as a steak sauce.

One of the menu's most rewarding sections is the appetizers. For about $10 you can order all of them and have an assortment of fried calamari, a Colombian empanada; and arepas with sausages. If you love sausage, the arepa with morcilla, a black blood rice sausage, is a steal at $2.50. Arepas, like corn on the cob, are better served hot, fresh off the griddle and drizzled with salted butter. Otherwise, they are universally bland. Unfortunately, the arepas here were thick and cold.

Although the dish bandeja paisa is common throughout Colombia, it originated from the Hernández' native region. This is the stick-to-the-ribs comfort food of Colombia. On an enormous platter comes a mountain of food: a bed of rice is surrounded by beans, topped with a thin, chewy but ample slice of beef, and then showered with an over-easy fried egg; chicharron, crispy fried pork skin larded with fat and gristle (not the kind in the bag at the store -- this is fresh meat); a griddled arepa; and several slices of fried sweet plantains. These plantains, it should be noted, are unlike the sweet maduros of the islands. These are CD-sized thin slices of a fairly plain tasting fruit.

A lighter entree is the platos los Paisas: tierra, mar y aire. Sautéed slices of thinly cut steak round, shrimp flecked with small cuts of broccoli and cauliflower, and marinated strips of chicken create a global harmony. This dish needs a massive hit of chimichurri to jump out -- or a faintly painted band of jalapeño salsa -- since the flavor is extraordinarily dull. For a talk-back-to-you dish, try the shrimp sautéed in garlic butter. Achiote, made from annatto seeds and more affordable than Spanish saffron, is used to tint the dishes yellow.

Desserts I tried were on sugar overload. Plus, the tres leche cake and flan came with even more sweetness: whipped cream and maraschino cherries. Beverages include ice-blended fruit drinks made with imported tropical fruits such as mango. And there's coffee, of course, and a few wines.

When the Colombian salsa band Grupo Niche played in Charlotte last year, they ate at Los Paisas, a fact not lost on the city's Latino community. I won't make hyperbolic claims for this chain's cuisine. These eateries are simple, inexpensive places: the food is straightforward and is, perhaps, more comfortable with rural traditions. But then, Los Paisas may be the closest to Colombia we're likely to get.

Eaters Digest

Dine Out For Kids is Tuesday, June 20. Participating restaurants donate a portion of the day's sales to Communities In Schools (CIS). Last year's event was a great success, with more than 50 area restaurants and corporations joining together to raise more than $50,000. Currently, 225 CIS graduates are enrolled in 42 colleges and universities and the majority of these students are the first in their families to attend college. For the list of participating restaurants, please check out the Web site: www.cischarlotte.org.

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments, or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136, or e-mail tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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