Packing away an empanada.
The first thing anyone told me about Medellin had to do with the food. Specifically, my friend John Rodli told me I needed to go find the steak under the bridge.
“Man, I recorded a show about it,” he said. “You should go there.”
Featured on Andrew Zimmern’s Travel Channel show Driven by Food, the steak served under a highway overpass at Calle 10 and Avenida Guayabal has ceased to be a local secret. But it remains an unusual dining spot, and would serve, my friends and I decided, as our final destination for the day. It was my roommate Sam’s last day in Colombia, and sitting on overturned buckets and stuffing out faces with meat as traffic roared by seemed as good a way as any to cap things.
It was going to be a day of food. And in Medellin, that means lots and lots of meat.
Ignore the bread. it takes up valuable real estate you need to reserve for meat.
You can smell it everywhere. It comes wafting out of kitchens and from storefronts. Grilled meat is the dish of choice throughout the Paisa country around Medellin, and in the City of Eternal Spring, you can count on someone grilling or frying or boiling something tasty at any time of day, any day of the year.
There’s empanadas on carts. On street corners, there are huge kettles where chefs ladle out soup and mondongo (a tripe stew similar to menudo). There are sit-down restaurants serving bandeja paisa, the regional dish of Antioquia, which is a plate piled high with some combination chorizo, chicharron, grilled steak, morcilla, along with a fried egg, avocado, beans and rice. It’s a sleep-inducing platter you must try, but only if you have nothing to do for the rest of the day.
Or, like us, you could go looking for Juan Carlos Ramírez at his Restaurante Itaca, a local favorite thanks to the personality of its chef, its cozy atmosphere, and its high quality homemade sausages.
Chef Juan Carlos will occasionally sing as he grills.
Located just outside downtown on Carrera 42, Itaca is a narrow, two story family establishment, reasonably priced, with incredibly good food and you’re-family-here style service. We ate there our first night in Medellin, after a 12 hour bus ride from Bogota. We were the last customers, and they stayed open late to feed us. When we showed up for lunch two days later, Juan Carlos abandoned his grill and ran inside to grab us a table and chairs, which he then set up on the sidewalk so we could enjoy the weather while we ate.
The variety of sausages is incredible. Sweet. Spicy. Pork and beef. Blood sausage (morcilla). And that’s just the first course. After that, it’s grilled beef with chimichurri sauce, pork chops, yucca, plantains and probably more. I was more or less unconscious by the end.
I should note that in six weeks in Colombia, Itaca is the only sit-down restaurant I ate at twice.
Chris Romaguera and Sam Doores enjoy some sidewalk dining.
There was more to the day. A long hike on a hillside and arepas in the Santo Domingo Savio neighborhood. There was a long trip on the Metrorail and another on the Metrocable. There was a sunset overlooking the city of Medellin, where we sat and kicked around memories of the trip hours before parting ways.
And when it was dark again, there was steak under the bridge.
Traffic is the best seasoning.
The underpass grill is exactly what you would expect. Greasy metal suspending big slabs of meat over gleaming coals, a row of sausages suspended just above the inferno. If you’re not arriving by cab, there’s some rather intense traffic dodging before you get to the underpass (its in the middle of a traffic circle, and drivers whip through the turns at a serious clip). Once you’re there, you place your food and drink order with a guy who stands to the side, grab a beer or a soda from the cooler, and take a seat on a plastic stool or overturned bucket while the grillmaster whips up your dinner.
Perhaps one of the best endorsements this place gets is the number of cab drivers who stop there. I’ve maintained that one of the best ways to find cheap dining options in any city is to look for where the cab drivers and the cops go. They’re the two groups of people who’ve covered every inch of the city, and are the most likely to know where the best stuff is that’s good and affordable.
I don’t mean to imply that mass quantities of meat are the only dishes available in Medellin. Colombia contains thousands of square miles of rich farmland. You can find every vegetable and fruit you can imagine, and quite a few you can’t (there are tours of markets specifically geared toward sampling the varieties of fruits that only grow in Colombia). If you’re a vegetarian, you will do just fine here.
But carnivores get some pretty big bang for their buck. Whether it’s on a street corner, in a fancy cafe, or under a bridge with traffic blowing past you, you will always find meat somewhere on the menu. And more often than not, in a quantity that encourages lots of sleep.
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Here’s a piece on Juan Carlos and his restaurant produced by local TV station, Telemedellin: