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Colombia On South

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In a section of South Boulevard well south of SouthEnd, where fun and diversions are overshadowed by an industrial area, one space in a strip shopping center seems to have had more rebirths than Cher's hair (OK, wig). In the past five years it has been the home of a Lebanese fish restaurant, a chicken rotisserie fast food spot, and a South American fast food restaurant. Two months ago it reopened as Restaurante Mi Tierrita, a Colombian restaurant. Remnants of an earlier incarnation remain: above Mi Tierrita's grand opening banner the sign for Chicken is still attached to the brick exterior.Mi Tierrita's is a seat yourself, casual kind of place where owners Alba and Miquel Mejia are quick to welcome you. The interior of the 45-seat restaurant has been spruced up considerably in this latest incarnation. Alba Mejia is from Colombia's mountainous interior and the decor communicates this. Side walls are brightly painted yellow and red (the Colombian flag is yellow, blue, and red) with shuttered false windows giving the restaurant an illusion of eating in an open air courtyard. Uncushioned booths line the walls, while in between are a scattering of tables. Two overhanging television sets alternate between Latino music videos and the Univision soap operas which at times galvanize the entire dining room -- and serving staff.

The crowd is primarily Spanish speaking as are the servers. One neighboring table consisted of an English speaking guy with a Spanish speaking friend. Centered on the table between them was an electronic translator, which they used frequently throughout the evening. The servers we encountered were visibly grateful when we spoke to them in Spanish, even if poorly pronounced, and even happier when we resorted to pointing out items on the bilingual menu. The owners, however, who are fluent in both English and Spanish, immediately took over our table to make sure needs were met and questions answered.

Alba Mejia said that she wanted to open a Colombian restaurant in Charlotte similar to her brother's restaurant in New York. This is the Mejias' first restaurant. The kitchen is staffed with cooks from Colombia and many of the ingredients, such as the Colombian choizo (sausage), are imported.

An ABC beer license application has been submitted, but until the license is issued, beer, including Cerveza Aguila, cannot be served. A number of fruit juices, such as soup sop, blackberry, mango, passion fruit and orange are available as well as Colombian sodas, tea, and of course, Colombian coffee. Of note are mazamorra con panela, boiled corn with brown sugar cane, a morning drink, and Oartmeal, a deliciously refreshing sweet mix of pineapple juice and brown sugar.

Although the Mejias still serve rotisserie chicken, the menu is dedicated to Colombian cuisine, which requires a hearty appetite and some friends to share the meal since this comfort food is served in large portions. Many mainstream restaurants now serve variations on the popular South American theme. Some bring a twist of ingredients to produce dishes such as a goat cheese arepa with chayote stew. Mi Tierrita, however, serves traditional dishes at bargain prices. Soups, from chicken to lentil, are the specials of the day and all are offered for $5.50 with sides.

One of the menu's most rewarding sections is Antojitos/Caprices. Antojitos is literally translated as "small whims," which is remarkably more charming than the English word "sides." For about 10 bucks you can order an assortment of fried green or sweet plantains (orden de tostones or orden de tajadas); fried yucca; Colombian empanadas; and an arepa or two. Among those that vie for star billing were the plantains, fried parchment crisp, and the dipping sauces that heightened the "whimsy." One sauce was pureed chilies and onions, which looked like liquefied wasabi and had the same punch. The other was a feisty, complex herbaceous sauce similar in taste to chimichurri, the Argentinean parsley sauce. We used this sauce on most everything including the trio of empanadas. Empanar is Spanish for "to bake in pastry" and vary in construction across South America. Here tasty corn flour pockets were packed with minced chicken and beef, vegetables, and spices. Even better was the lush imported chorizo. If you love sausage, the arepa with chorizo is a must have and is a steal for $2.50.

The chicken is cooked ever so sweetly in the Arroz con Pollo with flecks of corn kernels, baby lima beans, English peas, small slices of onion and carrots, and a blend of herbs. This is another dish heaped high on the plate. The accompanying house salad has crisp greens with slices of tomatoes and red onions, but you will need to request dressings if you don't want to use the oil and vinegar on the table.

If you prefer a heartier dish, the stick-to-the-ribs food of Colombia is the Paisa, or Bandeja tipica Colombiana. 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, crispy fried pork rind, several slices of fried sweet plantains and a griddled arepa.

Breakfast dishes consist of eggs, beans, arepas, cheese, and beef in various configurations and are priced from $5 to $8. Dinner entrees range from $5 for a half rotisserie chicken, with its burnished umber skin, and a side of potatoes and arepa, to $12 for fried red snapper. Most dishes are below $10.

I'm not about to make hyperbolic claims for Mi Tierrita. The place is simple. The food is simple and is, perhaps, more comfortable with village tradition. But we had fun exploring this rural Colombian cuisine. Maybe this place, we hope, will have the staying power at least to put up a sign.

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