Cholesterol fans, there is a new mountain to climb, a peak that may soar above chili fries and the In-N-Out 4×4, above even a sizzling slab of Jar’s finest fillet and a “pork pump” from one of the Shanghainese restaurants that consider a 2-pound sphere of simmered hog lard to be a perfectly adequate appetizer. Braised bacon, step off your pedestal. There’s a new guy in town.
La Maria, a smallish Colombian restaurant just this side of the “Welcome to Los Angeles” sign at the Burbank border, is a cheerful place, all earth-tone tiles and travel posters, abstracted parrots and a flat, happy mural of Colombian village life that looks closer to Tintin than to Botero. The locals stop in for batidos, Colombian milk shakes made with guanabana, passion fruit or the purple Andean berry called mora; for avocado omelets in the mornings, and for bowls of mondongo, a nourishing tripe soup, on the mornings after. The sudado de res, a thick piece of beef cooked with tomatoes and onions tinted with spices that turn them the mustard color of the Yellow Pages, is tender enough to eat with a spoon — which I do when the friend on the other side of the table is intrepid enough to order the dish. The arepas, Colombian-style corn disks cooked on a griddle, are very good here, especially the slender arepas con queso, pancakes that ooze white cheese when you cut into them, slightly crusty on the outside but tender and steamy within, like a delicate, refined version of the Salvadoran pupusa. I am also fond of the thicker, cruder arepas here, like flattened golf balls, which appear with most of the main courses and are also served as an appetizer with lengths of blood sausage or chorizo.
There is a Mexican side of the menu for some reason, and it is possible to dine on caesar salad, chopped ceviche served with tortilla chips, and a plate of chicken in peppery black sauce that is fairly similar to what you might have eaten at the Silver Lake restaurant Cha Cha Cha — chef-owner Antonio Prado, who cooked at Hugo’s among other places, is experienced in many cuisines. The beer is cold, the constant salsa music hot. When you look out the picture window, over the auto-body shops and out to the low, bare foothills of the Verdugos, it can seem as if you are in another place altogether, if not in Medellín then at least in Tucson. The restaurant has earned a certain amount of renown in the San Fernando Valley for its cazuela de mariscos, which is a thick, mild chowder plumped out with shrimp, shellfish and fillets of finfish, slightly sweet in a lobster Thermidor kind of way and dense enough to entrap a dolphin mid-dive.
What you probably come to a Colombian restaurant for is grilled steak, and La Maria has it in various guises — the relatively simple carne asada served with fried bananas and arepas; the bistek a caballo, served underneath a runny fried egg whose yolk melts into the meat’s juices; or the classic bandeja, Colombia’s national combination plate, which is basically the bistek a caballo augmented by a huge, curving slab of fried pigskin, which assumes a soaring parabolic shape you might recognize if you’ve ever seen a documentary on the architecture of Brasilia. If Frank Gehry can model buildings on the scales of a fish, surely nothing was stopping Oscar Niemeyer from drawing his inspiration from the skin of the noble pig.
But the great specialty of La Maria, its monument, its infarction on a plate, is Prado’s awesome picada, a big restaurant platter piled high with crunchy shards of half the food in his restaurant — slivers of grilled beef, oozing tubes of blood sausage and lengths of spicy grilled chorizo, golden wedges of deep-fried yuca and clay-textured rounds of fried green plantains, thick arepas chopped into wedges and chunky cubes of fried pork skin, token tomatoes and onions, tiny new potatoes that taste as if they’ve taken a dip in the deep fryer themselves. A mini-picada is enough food to make two people breathe as hard as if they’d just finished a marathon; Lord only knows what multitudes the regular picada might feed.
If you can manage it, La Maria has good rice pudding and one of the best flans in town, but the most intriguing sweet is probably the obleadas, a resolutely two-dimensional dessert, the size of a 45-rpm record, that melts on the tongue like giant holy wafers stuffed with gooey caramel. Confessing the sin of gluttony, perhaps? Amen.
La Maria, 10516 Victory Blvd., N. Hlywd., (818) 755-8811. Open Sun.–Thurs. 8 a.m.–8 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 8 a.m.–9 p.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. MC, V. Limited lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $18–$36. Recommended dishes: arepa con queso, picada, flan.