After landing at Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport, I took a cab past sugar cane fields to Cali, a Colombian city at the base of lush green mountains. The longtime home to indigenous Calimas drew attention from Spanish explorer Sebastián de Belalcázar in 1536, fueled by fantastic tales of gold in the mythical lake of El Dorado. Centuries later, Cali is now the capital of Valle del Cauca departamento, houses 2.4 million people, and has overcome considerable turmoil that’s been well documented on shows like Narcos. I visited Cali to celebrate a close friend’s wedding and had 10 memorable food and coffee experiences at restaurants and cafes during my stay from July 20-24, 2018.
Numbers on the map correspond to listings below and appear in alphabetical order instead of order of preference.
6. Panaderia El Molino
My friend rightfully applauded Panaderia El Molino, an open-air bakery on Cali’s east side. I enjoyed four pastries, particularly pandebono (chewy tapioca flour ring), almojábana (rice flour roll filled with cheese), and flaky, buttery croissant de queso. Basically, order any cheese pastry possible. I drank café tinto – black coffee – since dairy was already in ready supply. Panaderia El Molino also serves breakfast starring eggs, sandwiches, waffles, and cacerolas (casseroles).
MUST ORDER: Almojábana, Croissant de Queso, Pandebono
Platillos Voladores is a sprawling, art-lined Cali restaurant from chef-owner Vicky Acosta Cruz that adheres to clear voladores – values in English – promoting local cuisine and ingredients in traditional and creative ways. Calamares con chorizo is a fun play on surf-and-turf teaming tender fried calamari rings with spicy chorizo drizzled in sugar cane syrup and served with fried corn tortillas. Ceviche Mixto is another popular starter with tender octopus, fish, shrimp, onion, avocado, and tomato tossed in a tangy limoncello (Spanish lime) and aji vinaigrette. I prefer more traditional preparations at Platillos Voladores, but Chef Cruz also finds some success with fusion. Arroz Thai is a share-friendly mountain of fried rice featuring shrimp, chicken, and pork sauteed in a wok with vegetables, corn, apple, oyster, sauce, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Pescado Chontaduro was my favorite plate, featuring cherna, a white fish from the Pacific Ocean that also goes by wreckfish or stone bass. In this case, Chef Cruz blankets flaky fillets with salsa de chontaduro y mermelada de aji (chontaduro sauce and garlic marmalade). Chontaduro is a local palm tree fruit that’s judiciously sweet, with a firm pumpkin like texture, and stars in a vivid sauce that beautifully complemented the savory fish. Encocado de pescado y camarones was nearly as satisfying, a cazuela of fish and shrimp stew submerged in rich coconut milk sofrito.
MUST ORDERS: Arroz Thai, Calamares con Chorizo, Ceviche Mixto, Encocado de Pescado y Camarone, Pescado Chontaduro
Ringlete is an airy Granada restaurant with pink facade and white walls that features traditional Colombian food with modern plating. Top starters include crispy empanadas Vallecaucanas crafted with crispy yellow masa, filled with stewed ground beef and molten pork lard and served with an invigorating aji salsa. Aborrajado stuffs ripe plantains with stretchy double cream cheese before getting breaded with wheat flour perfumed with cinnamon, deep-fried, and served with mango and mamey salsa. Tostadas de platano come with carne desmechada (shredded beef), tangy aji and punchy salsa roja. Notable entrees include Pescado Pacifico de Maria Elsa, flaky white corvina fillet cooked a la plancha and blanketed in coconut cream sauce brightened with wild cilantro and basil and plated with a cone of rice dressed with coconut, crispy pounded plantains and plantain chips. Sobrebarriga a la Criolla features beef belly seared on the plancha and blanketed in salsa Criolla, a sauce crafted with tomato, “big-head” onion, pepper, garlic, and herbs. Each plate comes with potatoes and arroz Ringlete, rice topped with crunchy bits. Fiambre is basically Pandora’s Box, a rice dish with multiple meats steamed in a banana leaf, including fried pork belly, fried pork rib, chicken, chorizo, beef, and pork, plus potato and hard-cooked egg. This hearty dish is historically prepared to enjoy on a journey, and would no doubt fuel many miles on foot.
MUST ORDER: Aborrajado, Empanadas Vallecaucanas Tradicionales, Fiambre, Pescado Pacifico de Maria Elsa, Sobrebarriga a la Criolla, Tostadas de Platano with Carne Desmechada
9. Siga La Vaca
About 30 minutes outside of Cali in Rozo, where my friend wife’s grew up, we had a terrific lunch on a palapa-shaded patio at Siga La Vaca (“follow the cow”). The kitchen has a grill that burns avocado wood and another local wood called mata raton (“rat killer”). Our meaty lunch included everything from sizzle ubre (udder), punta de anca (ribeye), costillas ahumadas (rosy smoked pork ribs) and house-made morcilla (rice-studded pork blood sausage). Siga La Vaca is the kind of place where crispy chicharrones are considered a light starter. They also had a great version of the local specialty sancocho de gallina, a smoky grilled chicken served with herbaceous chicken soup loaded with corn and tubers.
MUST ORDER: Costillas Ahumadas, Morcilla, Punta de Anca, Sancocho de Gallina, Ubre
10. Trinitario Coffee
Trinitario Coffee is a specialty coffee bar from Camilo Fernandez that showcases beans from his family farm and Valle de Cauca caficultores (coffee growers) inside Galeria Alameda, a market strung with pink and green flags. He founded the bamboo coffee bar in 2016 and started roasting to start 2018. A blackboard lists “Perfiles de la Semana,” weekly flavor profiles. During my visit, they featured beans from Cauca, Valle, and Florida. I ordered honey processed Cauca beans brewed in a Chemex with a media/alta (medium high) toast level that yielded a bright, sweet, tangy pour that Trinitario Coffee aptly described as Limoncello y Chocolate Dulce. My pairing consisted of glazed, raisin-studded carrot cake.
MUST ORDER: Honey Processed Cauca Coffee, Carrot Cake