Restaurant review: Andes Bar and Grill

G.A. Benton
Chicharrones Criollo

I first stepped into Andes Bar and Grill on one of those gusty, mid-March nights when a dusting of snow reminds you that winter isn't eager to leave. Retreating from the chill and gloom, I was glad to walk into a fanciful room animated by vivid colors and the pulsing beats of cumbia music.

Framed fabrics and mannequins clad in traditional Andean garb, plus ochre, crimson and aqua-blue walls reflecting through jagged mirrors grabbed my attention. So did a bar brightened by glittering lights and a TV silently screening celebrity chef David Chang's convention-questioning show, “Ugly Delicious.” On another TV: risque music-and-dance videos that would likely warrant a PG-13 rating.

The Jumbo Margarita ($12), AndesPisco($8) and Rompe Corazones cocktail ($10; made with tequila and grapefruit soda) warrant an unremarkable rating. One of the several bottled Mexican beers offered, such as a Negra Modelo ($5), is a solid alternative and requires less cash.

Unfortunately, South American beers aren't available but, as the restaurant's name implies, the place specializes in food popular near the Andes, a mountain range that spans seven countries in South America. Many of the Andean states are represented on the menu, but a close inspection reveals a welcome and uncommon emphasis on Bolivian cuisine.

Anyone who converses with owner-chef and occasional server Jorge Nisthauz — this will be nearly everyone in the modest-sized eatery because Nisthauz is all about the meet-and-greet — can quickly learn why Bolivian dishes are featured: The owner and affable restaurant ambassador is a previous longtime New Yorker originally from Bolivia.

If you want to try the Bolivian empanadas called Saltenas ($3 each) — and you do — the wheat-based, scratch-made savory pastries take about a half-hour to make. After the wait, you'll receive braided, thick and pretty hand pies containingeither a soupy, scalding-hot beef filling or a chicken filling similar to that in a pot pie.

Although less rare or impressive, the Colombian Empanadas ($6) are nice: puffy, fried, corn-flour-based pockets bearing a shredded-beef filling.

Silpancho ($16), another Bolivian favorite, stars a delicious, flour-dredged steak the approximate width of a catcher's mitt. The immense piece of tender beef is pounded thin, topped with a fried egg and partnered with white rice, prefab but crisp fries, plus the minced, sweet-and-spicy pickled vegetables that compose the prevalent house pico de gallo. Rather typical for the restaurant, this is soulful and shareable mom-and-pop fare sold at not-so-cheap prices.

The Chicharrones Criollo ($16) teams mostly crisp, fatty, fried pork belly with hominy and a boiled, skinned potato. It's a hearty if humble Bolivian combo whose bland carbohydrates benefit from the house pico.

Just one of the reasons to like the Falso de Conejo ($14): the Bolivian dish translates to “fake rabbit.” What you'll actually get is a big, crowd-pleasing schnitzel that's usually made with steak. Because I'd recently beefed-out on the Silpancho, I opted for the crisp, golden-brown chicken version. Served with rice, it was a pleasant cutlet notably livened by zesty yellow gravy rife with peas and diced potatoes.

Like many entrees here, it's big enough to be dinner for two if combined with sides. A few of my favorites are the deceptively simple but excellent kidney beans ($4), the crisp, made-right tostones (plantain chips, $5) and the sweet, banana-like, pan-fried maduros (ripe plantains sliced lengthwise, $5).

All of these accompany the mammoth, highly recommended Colombian-style platter called Bandeja Paisa ($20). The colossal entree also includes a Colombian empanada; seared and smoky, bratwurst-sized, cumin-scented chorizo sausage; thin-sliced little ribeye steak topped with a fried egg; chicharrones; and rice. Try it with a simple but refreshing, lime-brightened Quinoa Salad ($8), and it's practically dinner for three.

Trying this restaurant in general is practically like taking a little South American culinary vacation, but in Downtown Columbus.

Andes Bar & Grill

79 S. 4th St., Downtown