In my search for good cheap restaurants, I cast a wide net. My friends know I’ll greet them with, “Eaten anywhere good lately?” I haunt amateur-review Web sites like Chowhound and Yelp. And I’m the fare asking the taxi driver, “Where are you from? What’s your favorite Boston restaurant?” Which is how I found out about El Paisa — a cabbie from Medellín called it the prettiest, most authentic Colombian place around. Having traveled only briefly in Colombia, I’ll take his word on the authenticity, and confirm that El Paisa is indeed attractive, delicious, and a genuine bargain.
Plantain soup ($5/small; $7/large) is a good chicken-stock broth loaded with chunks of plantain, finely minced carrots, beef (perhaps oxtail), and fresh cilantro; the large would make a nice dinner. Yuca frita ($3), lightly battered, deep-fried cassava root cut like steak fries, is starchy, a bit chalky, and a trifle bland, but benefits from dabs of marinara, pepper sauce, and/or mayonnaise. We realize we’ve over-ordered when our entrées arrive. The plato montañero ($9/small; $10.99/large) centers on three proteins: a big, thin, beefsteak grilled medium-rare; two huge strips of chicharrones (deep-fried pork rind with a goodly layer of fat and meat left on); and a hard-fried egg. These flank a mound of excellent brothy pinto beans, fried sweet plantain, and a tiny, extra-crispy arepa. (I can’t fathom who could finish a large.) Lomo de cerdo ($10) is another heaping plate: grilled, mildly seasoned pork loin, rice, a lettuce/tomato salad, and patacón, a crisp-fried pancake of mashed sweet plantains. Flan de tres leches ($4) has an overly sweetened cooked-strawberry topping and the gelatinous quality of panna cotta, but is mercifully light after our feast.
With dinner, we enjoy the 2004 Lazzaro malbec ($8/glass), an innocuous Argentine red, and afterward, a shot of Cristal aguardiente ($5), a ferocious Colombian firewater reminiscent of rough, anise-flavored white rum.
Our server is friendly, speaks excellent English, and patiently answers our many questions. The dining room features white tablecloths and the mostly unmodified, fancy Italian-American décor of Caffe Italia Too, the location’s prior occupant. As we leave with another meal’s worth of leftovers, it’s easy to see how a hardworking, homesick Colombian ex-pat might find high-value comfort here. We certainly did.
El Paisa Restaurante, located at 1012 Bennington Street, in East Boston, is open daily, from 6 am to 11 pm. Call 617.569.5267.