F ood can channel distant lands, and if you’ve ever wanted to go to Colombia, a meal at West Haven’s Saoco is a good place to start.
Mountains and valleys. Metropolitan cities and tropical beaches. Atlantic and Pacific. Juan Carlos Arbeláez, the owner, describes his kitchen’s offerings as “simple, yet diverse.” Colombia is a land of contrasts, and the results often end up all on one plate.
I’m talking here about the Bandeja Paisa ($15.95), which is practically Colombia’s state dish. Hailing from the Antioquia province, a rough translation is “peasant’s platter,” derived from the idea that rural laborers would consider it hefty enough to power them through a whole day.
At Saoco, it was lot of food indeed. In the center was a base of garlicky salted rice covered with an egg served sunny side up. Next to that was a lake of red beans and a platter-length ridge of tangy-sweet fried plantain. Then there was the meat: spiced red chorizo, a long skirt steak tender enough to cut with a fork and a long swoop of chicharrón—crisp fried pork belly. A quarter-avocado and soft white arepa added the finishing touches.
Arepas—griddled corn cakes—are another Colombian staple. There are multiple kinds, mostly depending on what type of corn they’re made with: large- or small-kernel, yellow or white. At Saoco, the arepas are made with small-kernel white, and the results are light and fluffy, with an almost creamy interior.
The one that came with the Bandeja Paisa was small, but the one that headlined the Arepa con Carne y Queso ($7.95) was roughly the size of a discus. Though we had to dig to find them under a pile of steak, onions and sweet peppers, the edges of the arepa were crunchy and smoky. A layer of melted cheese added balance to the crispness, and a tomato-onion sauce covered it all.
Speaking of sauce, every table setting at Saoco begins with a small tureen of a brown, herb-spiked condiment popular in Colombia: ají. Ours had a potent vinegar flavor with a spicy edge. Arbeláez says it’s used to greatest effect on the house empanadas but that it can go on anything. We ended up pouring it over the crispy, fatty chicharrón.
I’m told Saoco’s customers often order one of the blended juices Colombia is famous for, reflecting the country’s wealth of tropical fruit. Our server brought us a colorful reference guide for the different options, as we’d been scratching our heads over some of the choices. Familiar papaya, mango and pineapple juices were there, but so were guanabana (soursop), mora (a sour-sweet variant of blackberry) and lulo (a citrusy member of the nightshade family). Even pictures didn’t help us recognize some of them.
We eventually settled on the Mora ($4), declining the option to have it blended with milk. Deep red with a thick band of pale foam on top, it tasted like cranberry but without the sour tang.
We also tried another Colombian fruit, but in dessert form. It was maracuya—passion fruit. Served in a tumbler, the mousse in the Mousse de Maracuya ($4.95) was dense and not too sweet, contrasting the bold passion fruit and raspberry purées that decorated its top.
Saoco has been open since 2006, and owner Arbeláez describes the menu as “the most typical Colombian dishes.” He says the Bandeja Paisa is by far the most popular item at the restaurant because of its high profile in Colombia, and thanks to Saoco, we don’t have to board a plane to get an authentic taste.
Written and photographed by Anne Ewbank.