Everything I know about Colombia can be summed up thusly: Shakira, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Sofia Vergara and Pablo Escobar. Though just as America is not made up of a bunch of hamburger-eating-cowboys , I recognize Colombia is not only about belly-shaking pop singers, Nobel Prize-winning magical realists, buxom brunette bombshells, and cocaine-slinging drug lords. That is why I’d schlepped out to the Dunning neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side to check out La Parrilla, a new Colombian Steakhouse. I’d hoped to discover more of the culture by eating a little dinner. I did and I didn’t.
I’d tried this exercise once before at the Colombian steakhouse Las Tablas in Lake View. Unfortunately, all I discovered there was the poor man’s version of the all-you-can-eat churrascarias, where faux gauchos sport MC Hammer pants and red handkerchiefs around their necks while hawking over-salted meat impaled on glinting swords. (In Las Tablas’ case, there were no swords, just plates piled high with rubbery second-rate mystery meat and recent college grads doing shots of BYOB tequila and dancing on chairs.)
And given that, if I love La Parrilla for anything, it’s because it is the antithesis of Las Tablas — small, quiet, bright, inviting and run by a gracious family from Cali, the third-largest city in Colombia. The family scion, Jorge McCormick, is the most affable host/maitre d’/food-runner, a man who stops and bends his ear on the regular to listen to his guests, and also to pepper them with the pride of his culture. Spread thin, McCormick forgets to bring a salad we order until late in the meal and can’t keep up refilling drinks and the buckets of chimichurri, which my table requires every five minutes.
McCormick’s mom is the executive chef. Her empanadas are not the familiar, flaky Argentinian pastry-style, but instead a rustic fried corn meal with braised meat and ricotta, a style true to her native Cali. They are crisp and stuffed with comforting filling — truly one of the best, on par with my previous favorite empanadas served at the Lake View coffee shop Macondo (also from the family that runs Las Tablas).
Unfortunately, as soft and perfect as the empanadas are, the chicharron con arep a (pork rind with corn bread) is dry, cakey and brick-like, featuring bits of rubbery chew. (I regard the cloud-like cider vinegar kissed ones at the Publican as the fried pork skin gold standard.)
McCormick’s patacones con carne asada, a trio of crispy, fried green plantain rafts stuffed with well-seasoned juicy steak bits tossed with swatches of bursting tomato and buttery sauteed onion are unambiguously stellar. It’s like an open-faced jibarito (a Chicago specialty sandwich that utilizes flattened fried green plantains in place of bread). La Parrilla also serves one of those too, and it’s pretty good, but not nearly as delightfully garlic-perfumed as the originals invented at La Borinquen in Humboldt Park.
And herein is one of the major problems with La Parrilla: the question of authenticity. If you’re a Colombian steakhouse, why serve a Chicago/Puerto Rican invention, or a Cuban mojito, featuring fresh mint and a real lime, but filled with saccharinely sweet and flat American Sprite?
Even the centerpiece grilled meat platters — which range from a gristle and spongy connective tissue-riddled, well-done (they didn’t ask what doneness I wanted) New York Strip from the churrasco plate, to more of that incredibly well-marinated and seasoned medium-well carne asada — aren’t particularly distinctive. Though the cut of NY Strip from the churrasco plate I received on my second visit wasn’t very good, it should be noted on my first visit the NY Strip was juicy and relatively free of connective tissue, though it was disappointingly still well-done.
The chuleta de cerdo or fried pork chop (pounded ultra-thin) is a pork wiener schnitzel by another name. Though it is cooked perfectly, it is also the width of a tiny aircraft carrier, and boredom sets in after about five bites. Served with a lime wedge for spritzing, I really long for a palate-wetting sauce to break the monotony. I think about dipping the pork in the house aji hot sauce (cilantro, pepper, onion) or the chimichurri from the churrasco plate, but neither of these sauces are as pungent or vinegary as I’d like to warrant the effort.
And while sides such as the fried cassava are crispy and buttery like a thick-cut steak fry, and the sweet plantains are caramelized, little differentiates La Parrilla from other South American steakhouses or those fake gaucho shacks I mentioned earlier. (Looking a little deeper, my favorite Argentinian steakhouse, Folklore, in Wicker Park, also features Cuba Libres and Peruvian sodas alongside perfectly cooked, well-trimmed steaks, custardy blood sausage and beautiful grill-charred sweetbreads. I guess it’s not authenticity or uniqueness that matters as much as great execution.)
La Parrilla’s flan, which they buy from an outside “flan lady,” is executed brilliantly. Most flans jiggle like a 1950s Jello mold — goopy and flavorless —so I’ve generally stopped ordering them. However, this flan lady’s flan features smooth, almost creme-bruleelike custard rimmed with a rich, dripping, burnt molasses caramel. My only quibble of course is that flan was invented by the Romans (they served savory eel flan and sweet flan) and popularized by the Spanish, hardly Colombian. But really it’s kind of shameful to think about petty issues such as authenticity, with something that good in your mouth.
LA PARILLA COLOMBIAN STEAKHOUSE ★
6427 W. Irving Park; (773) 777-7720
This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.