I don’t know who gave me my first recommendation for Ajiaco.
My friend Carlos, who is originally from Colombia, was in the crowded church social hall after services when someone slipped a business card for the bistro into his hand. “I don’t even know who it was,” he laughed as I examined the mysterious card with its elegant logo.
It was kind of a surprise that I wasn’t aware of the place already – right in my Nob Hill stomping grounds on Silver Avenue, Ajiaco is practically next door to the new Michael Thomas location and opened around the same time.
It took Arne and me a few months to follow up on the anonymous recommendation, despite the restaurant’s attractive exterior and tempting menu (both of which can be viewed at their website). But finally we made it, and were immediately pleased we had.
The dining room is full of visual warmth, from the blonde wood tables emblazoned with Ajiaco’s steaming-bowl icon to a single bright green wall and a smattering of orange chairs. We were invited to choose a table from either of the seating areas; the front room feels a little more formal, while the back room lets diners see into the open kitchen and watch the action at the server station. We chose the back.
We started with selections from the “bebidas” (drinks) section of the menu. Arne chose the lulo (a citrus-like fruit of the nightshade family native to South America) with milk, while I chose maracuya (passionfruit) with no milk. They were both luscious. The lulo con leche was creamy, rich, and sweet, slightly reminiscent of orange or pineapple; the maracuya was tangy, refreshing, and utterly delicious. (I’m a sucker for passionfruit.) The juices were so good, I wished aloud that Ajiaco were open for breakfast.
Next came empanadas, available in chicken, beef, and green chile. They were served on a square white plate with green onion garnish and little dishes of sauce: chimichurri for the chiucken and beef and aji for the green chile. None of them needed the sauce (though we ate it anyway, especially the bright and tangy aji). They were piping hot, and the pastry shell was very crisp, with a slight graininess that made me think there was cornmeal in the dough. The fillings were excellent; I keep trying to decide which I liked best, and I can’t. The texture of the meat fillings was very finely chopped, accented with vegetables like carrot and corn. The green chile filling had more density than I expected; after some examination I realized that the chile was filled out with beans and maybe a little potato. The combination was delicious and satisfying.
For our main course, we decided on the picada for two (listed on the menu as picada², which is perhaps a bit too clever, since we suspected it was for two but had to ask to be sure). It’s a good choice for those who want to try a lot of different things: the menu describes it as “steak, pork rinds, morcilla, chorizo, yuca, plantain, arepa, colombian potatoes, lemon, chimichurri, aji.”
The picada arrived shortly after our friendly, funny, attentive waitress whisked away the empanada plate. It was a mountain of food that could easily have fed a family of four, the kind of plate that must tear words like “ohmigod” and “it’s HUGE!” from the mouth of nearly every diner that orders it. Baby potatoes, a few citrus wedges, and pieces of arepa (Colombian corn cake) balanced precariously on piles of bite-size pieces of meat, accented with yuca (a root vegetable similar to potato) and fried plantain.
I’m not an enormous fan of arepas, perhaps just because they are so different from what my mind conjures as “corn cake” or “corn bread.” Arepas don’t taste much like corn to me; their flavor and texture seem most reminiscent of English muffins. If you like arepas, though, I think these were pretty good. The potatoes were tender and tasty. But really, this plate was all about the meat. Some of it was terrific – I especially liked the chorizo, though it seemed closer in texture and flavor to a smoked sausage than to either the Mexican or Spanish versions of chorizo. The morcilla, a Spanish type of blood sausage, was great too – a little milder and much less salty than what I’ve had before. The pork rinds (chicharrones) were a little tough in spots, as was the slightly underseasoned steak. The plantains, of course were great – I’ve rarely met a plantain I didn’t like.
We stopped after eating a little more than half the plate (I made the leftovers into tasty burritos that weekend, moistened with homemade aji sauce) and defied sense by ordering dessert: coffee flan.
As our waitress set the flan on the table, she told us she loved it so much she was going to buy a whole pan – the size made for the staff tasting – for her mother’s birthday. Whether she’d let her mother actually have it was less certain. And she was right to be so passionate about it: The flan was smooth, rich, and creamy, just the way I like it. (I assume someone must like the kind of grainy scrambled-egg texture of some flan, but I’m not sure who.) The coffee flavor was rich and true, complemented beautifully by the caramel and berry sauces pooled around it.
We waddled out of there satisfied, but I found myself wishing I had tried the ajiaco, Colombian chicken soup. I figured it had to be plenty special if they named the place after it. A couple weeks later, I went for lunch to try it out.
I sat in the front room this time, and ordered two empanadas and a cup of ajiaco, described on the menu as “soup with chicken, guasca, and corn.” I had done my menu research, and found that guasca is an essential Colombian herb with daisy-like flowers, also known in Britain as “Gallant Soldier” (and in the US, apparently, as a weed).
The soup (pictured at top) came out in a small square bowl with a chunk of corn, still on the cob, poking out. The bowl sat at one end of a long rectangular platter that held tiny bowls of capers and crema, a few slices of avocado, and a small domed pile of rice. I tasted the translucent soup and was delighted. The broth was just a little bit sweet and tasted like artichokes. I assume that was the guasca making itself known. The soup was thick with small, well-cooked pieces of potato. At first I thought there was no chicken, but then discovered it under the corn: not small pieces scattered throughout the soup, but one large, juicy hunk of meat that I’m sure was cooked on the bone and hand torn.
The rice looked as plain as can be, but a single bite told otherwise. Moist, savory, and flavorful, it was surely cooked in chicken broth. I’m really excited to go back and try the arroz con pollo – or maybe the pollo a la plancha, which also comes with rice. The check for this wonderful lunch, by the way, came out to less than $9 before tax and tip – and really, one empanada would be enough, bringing the damage under $7. I think that’s a great deal. After all, a McDonald’s Big Mac Meal will set you back $6 – and flavor-wise, it’s not in the same galaxy.