Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Colombian Gold

Sick of sushi? Tired of Thai? Want to impress your friends by turning them on to an exciting new cuisine? Try a little Colombian! La Maria Restaurant on Victory Boulevard in North Hollywood is one of those little holes-in-the-wall that foodies dream about - undiscovered and unspoiled, with reasonable prices and an experienced chef. Chef Antonio Prado worked in such Los Angeles favorites as Hugo’s and Joan’s on Third before opening La Maria. The food is just familiar enough to be comforting, but just unusual enough to keep things exciting. The menu is half Caribbean-influenced Colombian and half “Cuisine of the Americas”, which are Mexican-inspired dishes. The room is small and cozy, with a large mural on one wall. It is designed to feel as if you are in a little town square. There are game boards under the glass on the table, like Colombian Monopoly (You have angered the Medellin cartel. Move back 8 squares, very slowly, then change your name).

We started with the empanadas and tamales de elote. The empanadas were puffy without being greasy. The heavily spiced shredded beef was a nice change from the anticipated ground beef filling. The tamale de elote wasn’t too sweet, as corn tamales can sometimes be. Little threads of saffron ran through the masa.

For main dishes, we ordered the picada and sobrebarriga. The picada is definitely a trip. It is a good thing to order if you are a curious diner, and want to try a little bit of everything. Even the “mini” size is more than one person can eat. Bits of steak, chorizo, blood sausage, new potatoes, deep-fried yucca, fried plaintain chips, chiccharones and arepa are all just tossed together on the plate without any sauce or rice to bind them. The blood sausage was crumbly with bits of rice and reminded me of haggis. Torn bits of arepa, which is similar to a thick corn tortilla, were strewn around the dish. The sobrebarriga is like a Colombian pot roast in a mild sauce, warm and nurturing, like something your mother would serve.

Some of the desserts are a walk on the wild side. Natilla con Arequipe (translated as “Milk Skin with Colombian Sweet”), turned out to be an evaporated milk-based dessert with bits of coconut that reminded me of Indian sweets. The “Columbian sweet” was dulce de leche. It was interesting, but I would probably go with the safer flan or rice pudding next time. Because there will definitely be a next time.

La Maria 10516 Victory Blvd. North Hollywood, CA 91606 (818) 755-8811

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