Empanadas with corn crust filled with potatoes mixed with traditional beef and served with a Colombian aji sauce at Los Parceros on Aug. 27, 2019 in Denver. Aji sauce is a jalapeno-based sauce that is a staple of Colombian cuisine. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)
For this review of Los Parceros — a vibrant, bitsy Colombian restaurant on a less-trafficked stretch of East Colfax Avenue — there are two stories to tell.
The first is the more interesting one, because it involves arepas, maracuya (passion fruit) and plantains, which, come on, are always going to win a battle of interesting stories. It’s the tale of the food and how it tastes and how it came to exist on a plate on East Colfax.
The second story is less interesting because it concerns me, and I am no arepas, maracuya nor plantains. But regarding this review in particular, I think it’s essential.
I’m not afraid to say what I don’t know — which is good, because there’s a lot I don’t know. I’m not an expert on Colombian cuisine (or Venezuelan, which is where Los Parceros’ new owner comes from). I’m not as familiar with it as I am with, for example, Thai, Mexican or my own family’s Italian food. If I’m evaluating something that isn’t as comfortable for me, I feel like you should know this.
Of course, you don’t have to be an authority on everything to judge whether the food tastes good or doesn’t; to know if you feel warmth inside a restaurant’s walls. But when writing about something with which I have a more limited experience, I research. I read and I eat and I eat some more. That’s how I approached this review, and, with that out of the way, we can get back to the arepas, maracuya and plantains.
Los Parceros opened in 2013, the creation of Bogotá native Joaquin Contreras. His friend Judith Rosales recently took over the restaurant, keeping the Colombian menu but adding Venezuelan hits from her food truck, Arepas Queen. Rosales said she’s toying with the idea of changing the name to Arepas Queen, but for now, it’s Los Parceros.
The main menu — the laminated, folded, chock-full of stock photos one — is loaded with typical Colombian dishes. There’s bandeja paisa, deemed the national dish of Colombia because hard-working people — those who break open the land and tame the animals — need monstrous mounds of meat, rice, beans and plantains to replenish the calories they burned breaking open and taming.
Most people don’t need nor want this much food, and for those diners, there are the more modest and refined ceviches, arepas and proteins. (More on these below.)
And then there’s the stained, seemingly afterthought-y menu from the Arepas Queen. The single page, crammed into the laminated, folded one, is easy to overlook, but you shouldn’t. It features Rosales’s creations, her versions of arepas, empanadas and tequeños (fried cheese sticks).
This is the menu to watch and study, because the food listed on it is in Rosales’s blood. Los Parceros, right now, is a Colombian restaurant, but its evolution may lead it slightly west.
Hits: There’s some crossover between the neighboring countries’ cuisines, and, considering that Los Parceros was started by a Colombian and is being continued by a Venezuelan, the restaurant takes on both.
Arepas, South American “sandwiches” of thickish corn pockets that are griddled, split and stuffed with savory fillings, are the best example of that. There are two menus of arepas; the difference, my server told me, comes from the fillings.
I preferred the Venezuelan-style pabellón ($7.99) to the Colombian chorizo and chicharron ($5.25). The arepa de pabellón was flush with creamy avocado- and cheese-coated shredded beef, sweet plantains and earthy black beans, coalescing into a mosaic of flavors that kept my tongue guessing what would come next. The hot dog-style slices of chorizo that filled the Colombian arepa were flat in comparison, but the griddled masa cakes of both, about the size of my margarita glass, were tasty.
The mojarra frita (a steal at $15) is fun. Complete with eyes and all, the tilapia steamed as we dug into its crispy, flavorful little carcass. Too bad it was paired with throwaway rice and crinkle-cut fries.
The mixed ceviche ($10.75) was good enough, and I liked that the thumbnail-sized shrimp, cubes of fish and slices of avocado were to be dolloped onto fried plantain cakes. The proteins were too acidic and rubbery to transcend “good enough,” though.
Misses: There are many iterations of arroz con pollo ($12), but they should all involve, well, flavor, and preferably toasty little grains of rice that stuck to the pan. Los Parceros’ version had too little of both and too many mushy carrots and peppers. It tasted like it had been merely heated up, as opposed to intentionally created. It didn’t help that the small mound of rice, which was topped with half a hard-boiled egg and ketchup, was served with more of those ho-hum crinkle-cut fries.
I’m not sure what happened with the sobrebarriga ($15), but what was advertised as being flank steak on the menu was instead a cut you’d find in a pot roast. Slightly tangy, super tender and covered with tomatoes, peppers and onions, it wasn’t bad, just not at all what was described on the menu.
Drinks: Besides the arepas, the jugos tropicales ($3.25), sourced directly from Colombia, are a top reason to come here. The slightly chalky, bright orange maracuya took me back to the Costa Rican beaches that I spent three blissful, uncertain months upon after dropping out of law school and moving to Central America to delay my entrance into the real world. With flavors like guayaba, mango, tamarindo and guanabana, you, too, can pretend like the real world doesn’t exist.
The adult beverages are also pure Colombia, from the top-selling Aguila beer to the country’s official spirit, aguardiente (firewater!), to the sweetest-ever tropical margaritas.
Vibe: This is a happy place. Unless you don’t like really bright yellow and blue paint and get freaked out by little wooden houses and instruments hanging on walls — then it is not a happy place. But if you’re alright with blazing walls crowded with houses and instruments, then yeah, it’s pretty happy.
There’s also a giant television set hanging in the corner, which, I’m told, drew quite the crowd when Colombia played in the World Cup earlier this summer. Considering there are only seven tables in the restaurant, fans were probably making new friends on those days.
Service: This is a casual place, and the service matches that. The food comes out as it’s ready, which means you could be flooded with appetizers and entrees at the same time, as I was on my first visit, or eating alone while your companion waits on their food, as I did on my second visit. The staff is friendly, and they can help you out with descriptions of unfamiliar menu items — a courtesy I happily used.
Bottom Line: Los Parceros gives a decent introduction to Colombian food, but it probably won’t join your regular restaurant rotation. Order something off the Venezuelan (Arepas Queen) menu, and you might be more pleased.
Price: Most everything is in the $6-$15 range.
Fun Fact: It’s hard to overstate the importance of arepas to Venezuelans, and there isn’t really a direct comparison in American cuisine. One estimate had Venezuelans averaging two arepas per day, every day.
Restaurant Info: Los Parceros, 5922 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, 720-379-3808. Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
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