El Cafetal

Carne: it's what's for dinner
By KENJI ALT  |  August 8, 2007

Dinner time’s rolled around and you’ve already had your five servings of fruit and vegetables. What do you do? If you’re like me (or any of my don’t-eat-anything-that’s-not-a-shade-of-brown friends), you head over to the recently reopened El Cafetal in Allston for a meat-and-carb fix.

To begin, try the sopa de mondongo ($5/small; $8/large): thin strips of tripe and vegetables slowly simmered in a thick-and-salty soup base — like mama’s chicken soup, offal-style. Can’t stomach the stomach? The ceviche de camarones ($5) is Colombia’s version of shrimp cocktail. A handful of plump shrimp marinated in a sweet and tangy tomato-based sauce is accented with diced onions and cilantro. For those with a big appetite and a small wallet, get the combo paisa ($6) or the beef empanadas ($1/each). The former is a platter loaded with pork belly, heavily seasoned chorizo, green plantains, buttery Creole potatoes, and yucca chips, all fried to a deep golden-brown. The latter is crisp corn dough wrapped around a filling that’s light on beef and heavy on potato, but nevertheless tasty and satisfying. Three of these could make a whole meal for the average person.

The most classic (and the best deal) of the 50 entrées offered here is the bandeja paisa, which comes in both mini ($7.50) and monster ($9.50) sizes. Start with a base of rice and beans, add a thinly sliced steak (well-done is your only option here), then top it with a full strip of fried pork belly, sweet plantains, and a sunny-side-up egg (hint: break the egg so the yolk drips onto everything). Richer and tenderer than any steak, the lengua a la criolla (saucy sautéed cow’s tongue, $9.50) is the perfect introduction to the wonderful world of “alternative” cuts of meat. Another house specialty, the massive tamal Colombiano ($6), combines whole bone-in, spoon-tender pork ribs, vegetables, and corn meal, neatly packaged in plantain leaves — the ultimate all-in-one meal.

If nothing else, then come for the drinks. The tropical-fruit shakes ($2.50) can be made with either milk or water (you want milk), and come in 13 flavors, the standout being the lulo. Despite the drab green appearance, its bracingly sweet-tart flavor is utterly refreshing — the perfect way to let your arteries relax after that rich meal you just consumed.

El Cafetal, located at 479 Cambridge Street, in Allston, is open daily, from 10 am to 10 pm. Call 617.789.4009.

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