If your perception of Colombia is of a nation beleaguered with drugs, terrorism and violence, you may just have to recalibrate your thinking. In 2014, for the second consecutive year, a WIN-Gallup poll conducted in 65 countries revealed that Colombia has earned the distinction of being the world’s happiest country. Known as the “Barometer of Happiness and Hope,” the survey reported that of 1,012 Colombian respondents, 86 percent consider themselves “happy” while only 2 percent report themselves as “unhappy.” The United States, by the way, ranked as only the 31st happiest nation surveyed.
So what could possibly account for Colombia’s surprisingly high happiness quotient? In discussing the survey results with my friend John (who’s married to a beautiful Colombian woman), I joked that if all Colombian women looked like Sofia Vergara and Shakira, it’s no wonder there’s so much happiness. His response was that not only are all Colombian women beautiful, they can all cook, too. What they’re cooking most he told me is ajiaco, a traditional Colombian chicken and potato soup.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that Albuquerque’s sole Colombian restaurant is named Ajiaco for the feel-good comfort food favorite of a nation increasingly celebrated for its gastronomic splendor. Launched in 2014, Ajiaco Colombian Bistro, which is located on Silver Avenue in The Village, a complex which also hosts P’Tit Louis Bistro and Limonata Trattoria, isn’t the Duke City’s first Colombian restaurant. That distinction goes to the now defunct El Pollo Real which earned its reputation as much for Mexican food favorites (in particular the charbroiled chicken) as it did for Colombian cuisine.
As was El Pollo Real, the Ajiaco Colombian Bistro is owned by Colombian immigrants Pedro and Nubia Sabogal, but unlike at El Pollo Real, the singular focus is solely on Colombian cuisine. Adventurous diners who eschewed El Pollo Real’s Mexican offerings in favor of ajiaco, arepas and empanadas couldn’t be happier–both with the food and with the stylish new digs. Elegant hardwood floors throughout the restaurant impart an airiness and homey feeling which is enhanced by the main dining room’s open view to the kitchen. You can’t help but stand agape at the burlap curtains in the front room which appear to have been made from large bags used to ship coffee.
Menu items are listed in Spanish with an English translation directly below. It’s an intriguing menu with a very reasonable pricing structure. Only a few items exceed the ten dollar price point and for the most part, those items are meant to be shared. If you’re tired of paying entree prices for appetizers, you’ll also be thrilled with the aperitivos menu. None of the eight appetizers crosses the six dollar barrier and empanadas can be had for under two dollars. The menu offers two sopas (soups)–Ajiaco and sopa del dia (soup of the day).
Not including the special of the day, the Platos (entrees or main courses) menu offers nine entrees including a vegetarian plate. The amiable wait staff will also work with guests to craft a meal low-carb dieters can enjoy that doesn’t include rice or potatoes. For an amazing introduction to Colombian cuisine that two can share, order the Picada which is brimming with steak, pork rinds, morcilla, chorizo, yuca, plantains and arepas. A la carta items are also available to supplement your platos. The postres (desserts) include torta de platano (plantain cake) and flan de cafe (coffee flan).
As tempting and delicious as ajiaco is, it’s not sacrilegious to order the sopa del dia instead. If the Sancocho or short rib soup is offered, it’s a worthy alternative. Served with fluffy white rice on the side, the soup is served piping hot, perfect for a cold winter day. While Sancocho, a term which translates loosely to “stew,” can be a complex soup made with a plethora of ingredients, Ajiaco’s version is deliciously simple–a seasoned broth; tender, de-boned short ribs and potatoes. It’s the type of soup which should be ordered not by cup, but by bowlful.
Though not listed as a dessert, the platano de queso (plantain with cheese and guava) is dessert sweet and dessert delicious. A large hollowed-out roasted plantain is stuffed with melted quesito and caramelized guava chunks. The Colombian quesito (cheese) is texturally similar to Mexican queso fresco and has a mild, slightly sweet taste that becomes exaggerated with the addition of the guava. There’s not much sweet-savory contrast in this dish.
The special of the day during our inaugural visit was a pechuga a la plancha (grilled chicken breast) served with plantains, a salad and a plate of sauteed vegetables. Topped with grilled pineapple which provides a sweet contrast, the exceptionally moist and tender grilled chicken breast is simple yet remarkably tasty. A simple salad (mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers) with a sweet-spicy mango-mustard dressing pairs well with the chicken breast as do sauteed vegetables (carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, squash).
Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), believed to be a Creole variant of Spanish paella, is a traditional dish of Spain and Latin American countries. Traditional, however, doesn’t mean it’s prepared the same way or with the same ingredients in all the countries in which it’s served. The version served in New Mexican family homes (forgive me, mom) may be the most boring, especially in comparison with the Colombian version. Featuring a medley of vegetables, seasoned rice and moist shredded chicken breast, it’s as beautiful to ogle as it is delicious to eat. With a texture somewhat similar to risotto and a vibrant color (courtesy of achiote), it’s one of those rare dishes it’ll be difficult to pass up in future visits to Ajiaco.
In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2017, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Ajiaco Colombian Bistro a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its Bandeja Paisa as one of the “dishes…that’s lighting a fire under the city’s culinary scene.” Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor.
Dining at the Ajiaco Colombian Bistro may not fully explain why Colombia is the world’s happiest country, but you’ll get the feeling that Colombians are happy in large part because their cuisine is so good. Visit Ajiaco and you’ll be happy, too.
Ajiaco Colombian Bistro
3216 Silver Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 8 January 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Arroz Con Pollo, Platano Con Queso, Short Rib Soup, Pechuga a la Plancha