As the summer wound down, many started binging on Netflick's newest series Narcos. Filmed in Colombia, the Goodfellas-esque Narcos informs a new generation of the evolution of cocaine trafficking beginning in the late 1970s by following the rise of the legendary Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Unfortunately, the series may also serve as a reminder of this difficult time for Colombians who migrated to the U.S. due to the emergence and power of drug lords. Charlotte became home to a significant well-educated Colombian expat community.
One of the newer Colombian restaurants in the Charlotte area is El Cafetal Restaurant, a small mom and pop shop in Indian Trail. Sure, it's located in a small strip center with about as much ambiance as, well, a small strip center, and has a bare bones interior, but when food arrives at the table, this unexpectedly charming eatery blossoms.
We enjoyed the complimentary basket of thinly sliced fried plantains with their pink sauce, a ketchup mayo mix, while studying the menu. At lunch the $5.99 menu offers not only Colombian dishes, but Mexican, too. As with all successful entrepreneurs, the owners here realized that a significant number of their morning and lunch time crowd were from Mexico and Central America and thus began offering burritos, quesadillas, tacos and chimichangas. Dinner and appetizers, though, remain strictly Colombian.
If you're not up on Colombian cuisine, it's predominantly a mix of Spanish and indigenous dishes and varies throughout the country. But think corn. One of the most commonly served foods throughout Colombia is the arepa, a griddled round flat cornbread often stuffed or topped with white cheese. Lighter eaters can make a meal of the arepas at El Cafetal, including the arepas de choclo, a grilled pancake flecked with sweet corn kernels. Equally appealing is the fresh-from-the-fryer golden empanada with its crispy cornmeal shell hiding an interior of melting ribbons of chicken or minced beef. Splash this with a bit of aji picante to kick up the flavor.
El Cafetal's menu is long and the dishes well-executed. Seafood dishes include several with fried or baked whole fish, stews and paella, while beef features prominently on the traditional list. Many of the dishes at El Cafetal have an honest, unpretentious quality to them. The quarter rotisserie chicken, golden brown and savory to the bone, is accompanied with humble rice and beans and absurdly delicious camelized plantains. Bandeja Paisa, the national dish of Colombia, is a faithful iteration of red beans and rice, thinly sliced beef, sunny-side-up fried egg, chorizo, chicharron, arepa, avocado and sweet plantains. Seriously, you have to have worked a long day to finish this dish.
There's a smooth, properly wobbly flan de tres leches and a true taste of Colombia, the brevas con quesco o arequipe, figs with farmer cheese and caramelized milk.
El Cafetal is a family affair and it shows. The food and service is straightforward and delightfully pleasing while the prices are ridiculously low. What a deal.