Antojitos Colombianos Masters the Art of Colombian Street Food

Empanadas come with crispy corn shells at Antojitos Colombianos.EXPAND
Empanadas come with crispy corn shells at Antojitos Colombianos.
Mark Antonation

Antojitos are the food of Latin American streets, filling little snacks usually eaten outside of main meals, but which can easily make up an entire breakfast, lunch or late-night chow-down. In the United States, most diners are familiar with at least some of the many configurations of Mexican antojitos, including the ubiquitous tacos, tostadas and quesadillas — if not the less familiar (at least on Main Street, USA) sopes, gorditas and tlayudas. But other countries have their antojitos, too: The word, after all, is based on the noun “antojo,” which means craving or desire, and many of the basic ingredients — corn, cheese, beans, chiles — are common throughout South and Central America.

Colombia has its own array of street snacks, and they’re the foundation of the menu at Antojitos Colombianos, at 6625 Leetsdale Drive, a restaurant as tiny and cute as its namesake food. The family-run operation recently took over a corner space wedged into the far end of a shopping center that runs perpendicular to Leetsdale, so the restaurant itself is nearly impossible to spot from the street. The parking lot isn’t easy to get to unless you’re traveling westbound, but don’t give up if you miss the turn: What awaits inside Antojitos Colombianos is worth battling traffic for.

Crispy aborrajados ooze cheese and guava paste.EXPAND
Crispy aborrajados ooze cheese and guava paste.
Mark Antonation

Bright yellow, blue and red decor, mimicking the Colombian flag, greets customers in the claustrophobic front dining room, which is only big enough to hold two tables and a few bar stools set along lunch rails on two walls. If all of those seats are taken, step around the corner into a slightly larger but equally bright second room with several more tables.

Depending on how busy the place is, you can order at the little window that faces into the kitchen or grab a seat and wait for a server. The menu is a two-sided laminated sheet with a few pictures of the food (there are more photos festooning the walls, along with Colombian art and crafts); the front side lists all the antojitos, while the reverse contains a roster of larger plates. It’s tempting to sample your way through all of the small plates as though you’re ordering dim sum, but you’ll want to check to make sure your choices are in stock. The cheese-filled pandebonos, fluffy little orbs of yuca and corn flour, sell out early; a server mentioned that the morcilla has been unavailable for some time because of the difficulty in sourcing pork blood needed to make the deep-burgundy sausage.

Colombian tamales aren't pretty, but they're filling — and filled with flavor.EXPAND
Colombian tamales aren't pretty, but they're filling — and filled with flavor.
Mark Antonation

Start with an order of empanadas, a half-dozen diminutive pockets of deep-fried corn masa filled with a beef-and-potato mixture. With each order sent into the kitchen, the deep-fryer loudly roars to life, a good sign that the temperature is high enough to keep the empanada shells from soaking up oil. Another deep-fried delight with an unfamiliar name is the aborrajado, with white cheese and guava paste filling a flattened ball of sweet plaintain. A light coating of batter adds crunch to the exterior. An assortment of simple arepas, flattened and pan-fried corn masa either plain or filled with cheese — or topped with pungent aged cheese — have different names and variations of ingredients, but similar flavors and textures. You should also try the papas rellenas, which are like oversized potato croquettes, and plates of fried plantain.

Mexican tamales are generally small enough to be considered another antojito, but Colombian tamales are an entire meal wrapped in banana leaf. Thick corn masa absorbs the juices of the ingredients it hides — a whole chicken thigh and big pieces of steamy vegetables — while also taking on the taste of the banana leaf itself, a strong flavor not unlike that of kale or collard greens. A single tamal comes plated with rice and two miniature arepas for a starchy trifecta.

Sancocho at this tiny Colombian restaurant comes with chicken, rice, fried plantain and an herbal, chunky soup.EXPAND
Sancocho at this tiny Colombian restaurant comes with chicken, rice, fried plantain and an herbal, chunky soup.
Mark Antonation

If you’re still hungry after all that, the headliner on the flip side of the menu is the bandeja paisa, named for the Paisa region of Colombia. It’s the country’s national dish and usually includes a combination of beans, rice, fried eggs, pork belly, steak, sausage and plantain. Antojitos Colombianos piles all of this onto one plate — a near-impossible feat, as the imposing platter seems almost bigger than the kitchen itself. No less impressive is the sancocho, normally a one-pot chicken stew, but here served in deconstructed form: a bowl of thick, herbal soup swimming with yuca and plantain sided by a plate of yellow-tinted roast chicken and rice.

Weekend lunch at this hidden eatery can be a bustling affair, with takeout orders shuttling out the door while families mill about in the doorway waiting for a table. And the antojitos keep coming — but not always all at once, which ends up being a good thing, allowing you to pace out a meal over cups of smooth and creamy cafe con leche. Try enough different dishes and you’ll be reminded of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, Spanish and Mexican cuisine: Colombia is bisected by the Central American isthmus, with the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Caribbean Sea on the north, so influences come from both sides.

As a result, here in Denver, Antojitos Colombianos presents a distinct culinary treat that will continue to trigger little cravings long after your last antojito.

You might drive past this east Denver restaurant before you can even say "Antojitos Colombianos."EXPAND
You might drive past this east Denver restaurant before you can even say "Antojitos Colombianos."
Mark Antonation
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