Chicharrón? Chi-cha-ching! Mesa’s under-the-radar Colombian diner is quite the find.
The last place you might expect to find Arizona’s single bona fide Colombian restaurant is a downtown Mesa strip mall. But don’t be discouraged by the banal mise en scène – folks from as far away as Las Cruces, New Mexico have been known to pilgrimage to La Tiendita for such Colombian delicacies as tender roasted chicken and crisp yuca fries.
Owner and host German Pardo, who made his way from Colombia to Phoenix by way of Virginia, may persuade you to order his favorite fruit drink, guanabana, which tastes like a mash-up of mangos and bananas and turns into a kind of exotic smoothie when mixed with milk. If you ask for an explanation of Colombian cuisine, German will answer, “No shredded cheese. No tortillas. No hot stuff.” He’ll insist you try small fried empanadas served with a thin cilantro and jalapeño sauce, and also arepas – thick, griddled corn cakes filled with oozy, salty white cheese. And you should.
If you prefer your snacks on a larger scale, consider the picada, a fried feast of bite-size treats best consumed with friends and an adult libation. (My suggestion: the refajo, a refreshing cocktail made with beer and Colombiana soda.) The picada includes smoky chorizo, sweet plantains, well-herbed blood sausages (morcilla), yuca fries, chunks of pork belly and small, yellow, creamy potatoes called papa criolla that burst open when you bite into them.
La Tiendita is a simple place, serving mostly traditional Colombian dishes made from the family recipes of Marcela Prado, the restaurant’s co-owner and German’s wife. The country’s hearty soups are missing from the menu, but its signature meat dishes aren’t. There is a deep-fried and breaded Colombian-style pork chop (chuleta de cerdo), lightly seasoned and served with green plantains and a salad tossed in a tangy, citrusy dressing. The bistec a caballo – a thin, marinated skirt steak cooked in a sauce of tomato and onion and topped with a fried egg – is terrific, especially alongside rice and crunchy disks of fried plantains.
If your idea of sustenance includes copious amounts of fats and carbohydrates, then don’t deny yourself the bandeja paisa, Colombia’s version of the lumberjack breakfast. It includes just about everything: well-seasoned red beans, rice, minced beef, chorizo, plantains, arepa, avocado, a fried egg and a giant slice of chicharrón, or fried pork belly. For those brave enough to tackle the bandeja paisa alone, remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Your seat in La Tiendita’s bright, welcoming room may include views of framed Colombian postcards, a large TV playing Spanish-dubbed American movies, or the adjoining grocery stocked with Colombian foods that the kitchen frequently utilizes. Case in point: desserts like brevas con arequipe, a Colombian version of dulce de leche, dolloped over sugar cane syrup-soaked figs.
“Tiendita” means “little store” in Spanish, and the restaurant has a certain cozy, hand-stocked quality befitting the name. Happy shopping.
Contact: 456 W. Main St., Mesa, 480-898-5546, latienditacafe.com
Hours: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. M-Sa, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Su
Highlights: Bandeja paisa ($12.95); bistec a caballo ($12.50); picada/2 people ($16.99); empanadas ($1.25/ea.); arepa de maiz rellena de queso ($2.99); brevas con arequipe ($3.75)
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