One of the many benefits of living in Los Angeles is our close proximity to South America. It's a big continent with lots of countries and cuisines, and here in L.A., we have the ability not just to explore Brazillian, Peruvian and Argentinian food, but also (though occasionally with some driving) the foods of Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Venezuela and Chile. Today, though, we look at a South American cuisine with a surprisingly large number of restaurants spread across our city: Colombian. Our dish of choice, sobrebarriga en salsa, is a popular Colombian staple. The word sobrebarriga simply refers to the cut of steak (flank, though it is sometimes described on menus as brisket), and the salsa, in this case, is a stewed sauce of tomatoes, onions and garlic. The result is a fork tender piece of beef, drenched in sauce, and served with rice, beans, cassava and an arepa (corn cake).
Our first version is at the spacious La Fonda Antioqueña, a treasure of a restaurant where every passing plate makes you regret whatever it is you ordered--that is, until your own plate shows up. Here, the sobrebarriga en salsa is a sensual awakening: bright, refreshing flavors uplifting the beef, but not so dominant as to lose the bovine's natural essence. The yellow, stain-inclined sauce packs a barrage of balanced flavor, happily soaking itself into your roasted potato, fried cassava, charred arepa and white rice. The soft beans offer a pleasant counterpoint, and all components are, perhaps, most happy when mixed all together on the plate, topped with the spicy table condiment of chopped serranos, green onions, garlic and lime. The menu may in fact call this dish brisket, but you will never, under any circumstance, confuse it with something my Nana might have made.
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The second flank takes place at Mesón Criollo in Van Nuys, a casual spot specializing in grilled fare, and also selling interesting Colombian goods at the front counter. While this version looks similar and has, obviously, many similar tastes, taking a bite immediately makes you appreciate the degrees of nuance and personal flourish that go into making a soft, soulful sauce. The meats themselves are of near identical tenderness, and while some may prefer this version--dried herbs holding a strong presence, the flavors hitting the front of the palate--there is a lightness of touch, a layering of flavor and a confident subtlety in La Fonda's that sets it in the winner's circle. Mesón Criollo is the passionate, drunken hook-up you can't wait to tell your friends about, but at La Fonda, you are taken by the hand, gently cared for, and wake the next morning smelling of delicate, high-end perfume.
La Fonda Antioqueña, 5125 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, (323) 957-5164., Mesón Criollo, 15713 Vanowen Street, Van Nuys, (818) 904-1099.