Some lunches necessitate a nap. Indian buffets, for example, with their rich coconut curries, fried samosas and plump pakoras, always have me yawning before I've finished my naan. Now there's a new cuisine to add to my list: Colombian food. Teeming with carbs of every kind—plantains, potatoes, rice, corn, yucca—this fare is not for the faint of appetite.
At El Cafetal, between Kibrom's Restaurant and The Goodness Land in the Boise International Market, the deep fryer is always sputtering. Empanadas, smashed green plantain cakes and bulbous potato balls are submerged in hot oil, fried golden and scooped into red plastic baskets.
Colombian empanadas, unlike their baked and flaky counterparts, are small pockets of crisp cornmeal fried to a deep, egg-yolk yellow. El Cafetal's half-moon turnovers ($5.99 for three, $8.99 for five) are stuffed with beef and potatoes and best with a squirt of mild green aji salsa flecked with cilantro.
The papa rellena ($3.99), which I pictured as a modest croqueta, was actually a baseball-sized beast. Crunchy tempura batter gave way to a mashed-potato crust, which concealed a lightly seasoned mound of shredded chicken and rice. Though it seemed like a sinister invention from the creator of KFC's Double Down, the papa rellena is, in fact, a popular snack served in various forms across Central and South America.
Speaking of popular dishes, perhaps one of Colombia's most beloved bites is the arepa, a small, fluffy pancake made from ground maize. El Cafetal's grilled arepas are served with an assortment of toppings: shrimp, cheese, chorizo, even pineapple and ham. The arepas are also available rellena, or cut in half and stuffed with shredded chicken, beef or pork rinds. I kept it simple with the arepa campesina ($4.99), topped with melted queso blanco and a pat of butter. The arepa campesina would've made an ideal savory breakfast with a full-bodied cup of Colombian coffee, but it was a bit too bland for lunch.
It did, however, take well to a plunge in El Cafetal's excellent sancocho de gallina ($10.99), a rich green stew with a corn cob and chicken leg bobbing on the surface. The soup got its heft from a hearty chicken broth and was thickened even further with starchy hunks of yucca and potato. The boiled corn imparted a sweet hominy essence, while fine bits of cilantro gave off an earthy perfume. The stew was accompanied by a mound of white rice, slices of fresh avocado, a sausage-shaped strip of fried plantain and a simple iceberg salad with a vinegary dressing.
Before I could polish off the soup, a familiar sleepiness started to take over. Even after a sip of Postobon Manzana, a joltingly sweet Colombian apple soda, my eyelids started to droop. I knew I'd have to wait for a subsequent visit to try El Cafetal's bandeja paisa ($11.99), a colorful platter loaded with rice, kidney beans, pork rinds, chorizo, grilled beef, sunny-side up eggs, avocado, sweet plantain and corn cakes. The Boise International Market's Grand Opening Celebration Saturday, April 25, might be the perfect excuse to return.