Eleven years ago, less than a year after it opened, this location of the Bogota Beer Company was bombed. One person died. Seventy were injured.
But on this chilly Wednesday night, several dozen 20 and 30-somethings smoke cigarettes as they peruse menus of locally-produced craft beers and Colombian pub food – think chicken wings and empanadas – while Janet Jackson plays in the background.
Bogota has changed.
Fifteen years ago, Colombia’s capital wasn’t on most travelers’ bucket lists.
Heck, even the Colombians who had the means were high-tailing it out of here.
But violence from the country’s decades-long civil conflict has decreased dramatically, especially here in Bogota. And the world is taking notice. The number of visitors to Colombia has almost tripled since 2000. Foreign investment is pouring in at record rates, and the country’s economy is – get this – growing.
So is the food scene.
Buoyed by the decrease in violence and increase in visitors, Bogota’s foodie entrepreneurs are opening everything from tea houses to microbreweries, expanding a national palette that was stunted by war for so long.
Colombian Food: A Violent, and Bland, Past
Imagine this: It’s the 1980s and you’re from Thailand (or India or Japan or any country with mindblowingly delicious food), and you’re looking to settle somewhere new.
Where do you go?
There’s Colombia, where highway kidnappings and bomb threats are rocking the country, or there’s, well, anywhere else.
While the food scenes of less turbulent nations grew thanks to immigrants who brought their spices and sauces from the mother countries, Colombia missed out.
“We had the indigenous food, the food brought over with the slaves, and the food influenced by the Spanish,” said Diana Holguin, a trained chef who runs the blog bogotaeatsanddrinks.com and leads food tours through the city. “That was it.”
Emphasis on the was. Today, you’ll still find the Colombian food staples of empanadas and ajiaco, Bogota’s answer to chicken noodle soup. But you’ll also find tapas, fish and chips, and ridiculously high value fresh sushi.
Bogota’s new crop of chefs are also embracing trends like sourcing responsibly-raised meat, crafting gourmet comfort food (you’ll see lots of variations on mac and cheese in Bogota), and slapping the “artisan” label on the once-humble hamburger.
“Bogotá is slowly but surely becoming one of South America’s food destinations,” said Holguin. “It’s an exciting time for gastronomy.”
After attending culinary school in London and traveling throughout Southeast Asia, Bayer returned to Bogota with a mission to turn Colombians on to the flavors he had discovered during his travels.
When he first opened Wok, Bayer was laughed at. It was that ridiculous at the time to think one could make a living as a chef in Bogota. Today, those same naysayers can dine at any of Wok’s 11 restaurants, or the three opening this year.
Part of Wok’s success was integrating familiar items into Bayer’s relatively exotic recipes. He replaced the papaya in Thailand’s ubiquitous papaya salad with mango, a fruit his customers were more accustomed to eating. In his homemade hoisin and teriyaki sauces, he used sugarcane, a more traditional sweetener than sugar.
He also kept his prices low.
“You didn’t need to be a wealthy Colombian to eat at Wok,” Bayer said. “It gave the opportunity for a large number of people to experience new flavors.”
After Wok’s success, Bogota’s restaurant scene began to evolve. More Asian fusion joints opened up. Sushi became popular, along with Peruvian food.
Wok and the subsequent tide of Wok wannabes opened people’s minds regarding food, said Antonuela Ariza, chef at Bogota’s restaurant Mini-Mal, where menus in Spanish and English list contemporary Colombian dishes like pumpkin soup, crab stuffed plantain balls, and Amazonian fruit juices.
“But it took a while – about five years – for people to say we can accept the idea of trying new things.”
About 30 minutes north of the historic center, Bogota’s Zona Rosa is home to the original Wok and now, a host of other nuevo Bogota restaurants.
Here you can get fresh sushi, an anomaly in Bogota a decade ago. (The city’s original sushi bars imported their fish. Kind of ridiculous considering the country’s 100s of miles of Pacific and Caribbean coastline, but I digress.)
In Zona Rosa you can also find Irish pubs and chains like Bogota Beer Company, which brews some of the best beers in South America.
Before the Bogota Beer Company, Colombians had only one brand of brew to choose from and beer on tap was, as the company’s PR rep puts it, “a mystery”.
Today the Bogota Beer Company is the second biggest brewer in the country, pouring porters, IPAs and honey ales, and inspiring other Colombian craft brewers like Chelarte and Cerveceria Artesanal De Los Andes.
At the center of Zona Rosa, waiters with more flair than Chili’s could handle drape paper sashes and crowns on diners struggling through the 60-plus page menu at Andres DC, a popular restaurant and nightclub.
But even in swanky Zona Rosa, which guides and locals will tell you is the city’s safest neighborhood, police and private guards stand with guns and muzzled dogs at every corner. They check the trunks of cars that pull into gated apartment buildings, and guard the doors of Dolce & Gabbana and Hugo Boss.
Fifteen minutes south of Zona Rosa, Laura Cahnspeyer runs Taller De Té, Bogota’s first modern tea house.
After traveling throughout India, Sri Lanka and Germany to study the countries’ tea culture and industries, Cahnspeyer returned to Bogota and opened her shop in 2012. Today she sells teas and blends from around the world and helps Bogota’s hotels develop custom blends.
She tries to use only locally-grown ingredients in her tea endeavors, but it’s not easy.
Demand for sustainably-grown Colombian chamomile isn’t exactly high. Importing is always an option, and sometimes cheaper prices on marigold and cinnamon are hard to resist.
“Last week I needed lemongrass,” she said. “I just had to be patient.”
A few miles away at La Fama, Bogota’s first southern barbecue restaurant, general manager Santiago Arango can relate. He opened La Fama in 2012 after a year in New York, where he was a frequent visitor of barbecue joints like Williamsburg’s Fette Sau.
Meat has always been a staple in Colombia’s cuisine, but before La Fama it was traditionally served grilled, not smoked. Arango wanted to supplement carne asada with barbecued suckling pig, but it took him more than four months to find local, humanely-raised, vaccine-free pork.
In New York, Santiago imagines his peers could accomplish the same task with a phone call.
“We don’t have a Whole Foods here,” he said.
But what Bogota does have is a strong camaraderie among its foodie entrepreneurs. Chefs readily share their sources’ contacts knowing the more demand, the more availability and ultimately, cheaper prices of locally-produced ingredients.
“The people who want to work locally work together, even if they have to complete,” said Cahnspeyer. “Sometimes it’s more love than business.”
But love can only do so much, especially outside of the city limits.
At Mini-mal, chef Antonuela Ariza has worked for the past seven years with a group of women who harvest piangua, a shellfish similar to the mussel, near the Ecuadorian border.
A year ago, the piangua pickers stopped selling to Mini-mal after paramilitary groups insisted the women pay “taxes” on their shipments. Ariza said one of the woman’s sons was killed by the paramilitary. Fearing repercussions, many of the group fled the country.
“Colombia is still a country at war,” Ariza said. “We have people who live in very tragic situations.”
The Colombian government has been engaged in peace talks with rebels for more than a year but the fighting continues in some parts of the country. While travelers to Bogota and Colombia’s bigger cities might not feel the tension, the US state department’s latest advisory warns travelers that kidnappings are still an issue in rural areas.
Fortunately there’s plenty to eat on the main drag.