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 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 handful of 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 just over 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).
8 January 2015: 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.
8 January 2015: 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.
8 January 2015: 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).
24 August 2019: When Spanish conquistadores set out to conquer the new world, it was inevitable that empanadas would go with them. Today, empanadas are standard fare in every Spanish speaking country settled by Spaniards though there are several variations. Colombia’s version, for example, is prepared with corn flour and fried, whereas empanadas in other countries are made from wheat flour and more commonly baked. The fillings of choice in Colombia are pollo (chicken) and carne (beef), both of which are available at Ajiaco along with an empanada stuffed with green chile. Ajiaco employs a bit of food coloring to differentiate its empanadas: light green for the empanada stuffed with green chile, red for empanadas stuffed with beef and a natural yellow for empanadas stuffed with chicken. They’re served hot to the touch with a salsa of medium piquancy on the side. All three are superb!
24 August 2019: Almost as ubiquitous in Colombia as empanadas are arepas, a maize-based bread originating in South America’s northern Andes region. For centuries, arepas were an important staple in the diet of impoverished Venezuelans and Colombians, but today they are eaten by rich and poor alike and are considered a national food for both countries. Arepas are part of the daily diet in place of bread for most Colombians who love their versatility. They can be fried or baked, served plain or with a filling and at any time of the day as a snack, starter or appetizer. Ajiaco offers arepas not stuffed, but as accompaniment for other items. The chicharepa, for example, is served with chicharrones, the choriarepa with chorizo and the morciarepa with morcillas (a blood sausage stuffed with pig’s blood, rice, onions, and spices). The morciarepa is a rather thick sausage predictably with a lot of flavor. It’s not for everyone, but if you have an adventurous bent, you should enjoy it.
24 August 2019: 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 (carrot cubes, green beans, peas), seasoned rice and moist shredded chicken breast, Ajiaco’s arroz con pollo is as beautiful to ogle as it is delicious to eat. With a texture somewhat similar to risotto and a panoply of vibrant colors arranged in a pyramidal shape, it’s one of those rare dishes you might not be able to pass up in future visits to Ajiaco. Artful plating doesn’t end with the arroz. The salad is a melange of fresh greens festooned with radishes, carrots and cucumbers enlivened with a passionfruit dressing that offers sweet, citrusy notes. Sweet plantain slices round off a superb plate.
24 August 2019: Often too lazy to cook for myself during my last carefree year of bachelorhood, I indulged on a diet of breakfast cereal (Jerry Seinfeld would be proud) and Chef Boyardee canned pastas. That is until I told Kim, then my fiancee, who made me promise to “give up that crap.” Though it took considerably more effort, I began over-compensating by preparing such dishes as paella. The painstakingly laborious process of preparing paella certainly gave me an appreciation for Ajiaco’s Paella Colombiana (octopus, clams, shrimp, mussels, surimi, chorizo, white wine, rice, bell pepper, plantain, creole sauce). Surimi, by the way, is a a gel made primarily from Alaska pollock that’s been processed into other kinds of seafood. Ajiaco’s rendition of paella is considerably better than the one I made at my Swindon flat. In fact, it’s one of the best versions to ever cross my lips. It’s at least as good as Ajiaco’s arroz con pollo and that’s saying something.
24 August 2019: Ajiaco doesn’t have a large postres (dessert) menu, offering only three items: platano con queso (plantain with cheese and guava), arepa de chocolo (sweet corn cake with cheese and cream) and flan de cafe (coffee flan). It goes without saying that the flan de cafe is made with Colombian coffee (no Juan Valdez jokes, please). What does need to be said, nay shouted from rooftops, is how tasty this terrific timbale of addictive deliciousness is. Unlike some traditional flan, this version isn’t cloying, and is balanced by the punchy, bitter coffee flavor permeating the dessert. A sauce made from raspberries and blackberries is drizzled on the flan and on the plate.
New Mexico may not be blessed with a profusion o Colombian restaurants, but the one we do have was rated one of the ten best Colombian restaurants in America for 2015 according to Tabelog, a “dynamic, interactive environment where users can come together over a shared passion for fine dining.” In fact, Albuquerque’s very own Ajiaco Colombian Bistro was ranked eighth. Tabelog captured the essence of Ajiaco: “Ajaico offers contemporary dishes presented gourmet style, stacked high with creative garnishes and some amazing deserts. Their dining room is minimalist with light wood and exposed light bulbs. Ajaico is set among the boutiques and quaint shops in Nob Hill.” Ajiaco has come a long way from the days in which it was best known for its charbroiled chicken.
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 has been twice rated 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
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LATEST VISIT: 24 August 2019
1st VISIT: 8 January 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Arroz Con Pollo, Platano Con Queso, Short Rib Soup, Pechuga a la Plancha, Chicken Empanada, Beef Empanada, Choriarepa, Morciarepa, Paella Colombiana, Flan De Cafe