On the hunt for Colombia's protein-rich national dish

The hefty Colombian dish hits the table like a promise, a challenge and a threat. Though there are variations aplenty, bandeja paisa generally is composed of (deep breath): fried pork belly (chicharrónes), beef (usually steak cooked carne asada style), sausage (typically chorizo), a fried egg, pinto or other beans, rice, sweet plantains, avocado and arepas (South American corn cakes). To say that it’s a lot of very rich food is an understatement, and a quick internet search suggests that Colombia’s tourism machine has seized on the dish’s eye-popping, excessive appearance to promote its national culinary traditions.

The dish originated as a fuel-up for farmhands in Colombia’s Antioquia region—bandeja means platter in Spanish, and paisa refers to people from northwest Colombia. However, the dish’s renown has landed it on the menu of just about any local eatery with South American origins. We sampled the dish at three restaurants, experiencing variations of enjoyment mixed with overindulgence-related regret.

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Los Galapagos is an affordable little Ecuadoran eatery in a residential neighborhood on the West Side. Though its menu is wide-ranging—from a diverse array of South American favorites to Puerto Rican staples such as mofongo—a quick survey of surrounding tables during a recent visit made it clear that bandeja paisa is a customer favorite. Particularly flavorful beans and a delicious link of sausage are high points, as is the engaging service.

At Andes Bar & Grill, a charmingly quirky Downtown eatery with Pan-South American aspirations, it is all about the chicharrónes. When served as a standalone dish known as chicharrónes criollo, they are Andes’ most popular item, our server told us. Nestled among the bandeja paisa spread, the chicharrónes stand out for their crispy richness, ample seasoning and pure, compulsive deliciousness. Unique to Andes’ preparation of bandeja are the cheese empanadas (instead of arepas) and the two varieties of plantains (sweet maduros and savory tostones) that come with the dish. 

The Brewery District’s Arepazo Tapas Bar Grille one-ups everyone else’s meat quotient with an astonishingly large slab of fried pork belly and the thickest (and tastiest) steak of the trio. The venerable Venezuelan restaurant’s namesake arepas are easily the best of the bunch, and its famous cilantro sauce accompanies the components in the dish.