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Taste Of Colombia 

Delicious treats in store at charming venue

Near the intersection of Highway 51 and South Boulevard (which becomes Polk Street in Pineville) is a small, nondescript shopping strip with a Latino market, a lingerie shop and a charming Colombian bakery and restaurant.

After opening Delicias Colombian Bakery and Restaurant in late 2002, owners Elizabeth and Geraldo Tobar have enjoyed becoming a favorite with the Charlotte Colombian community as well as the greater Latino community. The draw here is the food.

The glass case at the takeout counter displays an assortment of Colombian baked goods. A tray of pandebono, a renowned Colombian round bread stuffed with white cheese, beckons. "You need to put them in the micro for 30 seconds," the native Colombian woman behind me in line advised. In addition to bread, pastries such as pastel Gloria are offered.

To the left of the baked goods is the hot food counter, which boasts thinly crusted corn meal empanadas filled with ground meat and herbs ("You must eat these with salsa picante," my unofficial guide added); spicy chorizo; blood sausage; long strips of chicharron, or chewy fried pork skin; and abborrajado, deep fried plantains stuffed with cheese. This counter does steady business throughout the day. Meanwhile, the small number of booths and interior tables are filled with construction and landscape workers, suited business people reading Charlotte's local Latino newspapers, diners eating breakfast (desayuno antioqueno is served all day) while chatting on cell phones, and families.

Colombian souvenirs as well as large framed travel posters of Colombian sites and cities adorn the walls. Tables are set with a salsa, and if the food seems bland, put some salsa on yours. You'll notice everyone else does.

Without the salsa, Colombian dishes seem rather anemic, lacking oomph. South American cuisine closely mirrors the history of the continent. In the US, the potato is under attack from the popular carb-loathing diets. In South America, where the potato was first cultivated in the Andes Mountains 7,000 years ago, the potato is a constant in the diet. More than 100 varieties are grown in Peru and eaten throughout South America. We seldom see these in our markets, even the Latino markets.

Corn was grown before the potato in Peru. Other indigenous crops common in South American and Colombian dishes are sweet potatoes, avocados, tomatoes, yucca, chilies, beans and a variety of squashes. Seventeenth century Europeans, in turn, introduced South Americans to chickens and pigs, garlic and onions, bananas and plantains, lentils, garbanzo beans and rice. The combination of these ingredients with spices and herbs creates South American cuisine. However, each region has developed unique dishes. Colombia has a coast line on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean and the cuisine is heavily dominated by seafood.

Of the dishes of Colombia, perhaps the most famous is a stew known as ajico and made with chicken, three kinds of potatoes, guascas, cilantro, garlic, corn on the cob, capers, avocado and cream. This dish is infrequently made in the US since the leaves of the guascas plant are hard to find, although this plant grows wild along the roadsides of Colombia. Tobar agreed that she cannot make the dish without guascas.

However, the Delicias kitchen does make arepas, griddled corn cakes made from precooked corn flour, and arepas de chocolo, which are made with fresh corn. But unless the arepas are slathered with butter or eaten with spicy sausage, they're universally bland and something of an acquired taste.

Beverages include ice-blended fruit drinks made with imported tropical fruits such as mango and passion fruit. And there's coffee, of course.

Bandeja Paisa is the national dish of Colombia. At Delicias, the dish arrives in a colossal portion. On a large platter is an iceberg lettuce salad, red beans and rice, and a thinly sliced piece of beef, which is both chewy and dry. On the beef is a sunny-side-up fried egg. Surrounding the dish is a large link of imported chorizo, a foot-long piece of chicharron and a small arepa. Sweet plantains, or maduros, are gently fried and served on the side. You would have to be working a long day at high altitudes to endeavor to finish this dish alone.

Another popular dish is the thinly sliced, rather plain broiled chicken breast on fried, rather plain mashed plantain patties. This too comes with the red beans and rice and a salad. This dish needs a massive hit of salsa to jump out. But plainness is part of Colombian food. It's simple, comfort food.

Delicias' menu is printed in both Spanish and English and has helpful pictures. The staff is also welcoming and willing to help non-Latinos.

If you've never tried Colombian food, Delicias is a treat. The empanadas are outstanding. One way to eat well and inexpensively in Charlotte is to dine at the Mom and Pop ethnic restaurants. At Delicias, the entrees are enormous and inexpensive, with most under $9. Plus, you can fill a bakery sack with breads, rolls and pastries for five bucks. Can't beat that.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via e-mail: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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