To most Denver residents, the difference between Colombian and Venezuelan cuisine is barely discernible: Empanadas, arepas, black beans, plantains and slow-cooked meats fill the menus at restaurants of either nationality. But you can't just substitute one cuisine for the other; similar dishes are distinguished by the geographical and cultural differences of the two nations, and subtle variations in recipes make a world of difference to those who grew up with the food.
Imagine visiting your grandmother's house for dinner — only to find someone else's grandmother cooking in her kitchen.
Something similar happened at Los Parceros, the Colombian restaurant founded by Joaquin Contreras in 2013 at 5922 East Colfax Avenue. A couple of years ago, Contreras sold the place to a Venezuelan friend who took over the Colombian menu while adding recipes from her own country.
Los Parceros is now under new ownership once again, and it has returned to its Colombian roots under Andrés Chaparro, who is a co-owner of La Rola, a food truck that also has a counter at Zeppelin Station. Chaparro says the food at Los Parceros was always good under the previous owner, but it just wasn't what years of regular Colombian customers had come to expect.
"People have called me crazy for acquiring a restaurant in the middle of COVID, but that's the reason I did it — because it has great opportunity to grow," Chaparro says, explaining that out of his various businesses, he's choosing to focus primarily on Los Parceros right now. "I want people to feel like they can bring their families and know that the owner is present."
Chaparro purchased Los Parceros in mid-May and ran it for a month, part of that with takeout-only service, before closing for two weeks for a remodel. He added interior awnings covered with clay tile to give the small dining room (which currently holds only six tables) the feeling of a Colombian pueblito paisa, or country village. Dark wood, brick and colorful tile complete the look, and out front, a low fence separates two umbrellaed tables from the sidewalk along Colfax.
The food appeals to a wide variety of customers because of its homey nature, familiar flavors and mild spice, Chaparro says. "At Zeppelin Station we get very specific customers, but this one has a little bit more diversity," he adds. "I'm seeing more Park Hill and Mayfair customers, as well as people from Colombia."
And while La Rola specializes in street food (including a hot dog topped with pineapple sauce, shredded chicken, ham, bacon, cheese and a whole quail egg), Los Parceros serves a wider variety of soups and entrees in addition to chicken, cheese or beef empanadas; arepas split and stuffed with meats, cheese, avocado and tangy garlic aioli; pandebonos (round, cheesy buns); and patacones (crispy fried plantain). Chaparro even invented an arepa he calls La Chicharizo, a combination of pork belly and chorizo.
The national dish of Colombia is bandeja paisa, a heaping platter of rice, beans, chicharrón, ground beef or steak, chorizo, fried plantain and a fried egg. The chorizo is milder in flavor than its Mexican cousin, and firmer, so it's served grilled in the casing rather than crumbled. And the chicharrón is also distinct to Colombia; it comes as a strip of skin-on pork belly scored along one side and grilled so that it curls into the shape of a bear claw. Colombian pork belly is chewier than braised versions found in modern American restaurants, so be prepared for more texture than you might expect.
Chaparro is happy to educate his American customers on how to eat Colombian dishes. The lime that comes with the bandeja paisa, he explains, is best squeezed over the chicharrón. And the best way to eat the whole dish is to break the egg yolk into the rice, mix it together with the beans, and scoop up bites with pieces of the various meats, as well as the small, plain arepa that also comes with the dish. No doubt you'll have leftovers, so Chaparro suggests that you chop them up the next morning and serve everything with more eggs in a dish called calentado, which is also on the menu here. (Say "calenta'o" if you want to impress your Colombian host.)
Another popular meal is sancocho, a beef rib and chicken soup bobbing with big chunks of potato, yuca and plantain. The soup comes with a side of rice with lime and avocado; Chaparro advises you to fish out the big pieces of vegetable, chop them up in the rice, and use a spoon to scoop up the long-simmered broth with bites of the rice mixture.
Whatever you order, expect more food than you can comfortably eat in one sitting, and make sure you wash your meal down with a tropical fruit juice: Lulo, maracuyo, guanabana, mora, guayaba and tamarindo are among the options, and there's also agüepanela, a refreshing (but not tart) limeade made with dark cane sugar.
"Colombian food can bring you back to traditional home cooking," Chaparro concludes — the kind of home cooking you long for, even if you've never had it before.
Los Parceros is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, and opens at 9 a.m. on weekends. Call 720-379-3808 for more information, or to ask about private dining for small groups available after 8 p.m.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.