Here’s what happens when you get to chatting with fellow drivers at the taxi garage before your shift starts: you end up at a Colombian restaurant in Jackson Heights face to face with a plate of pork belly.
I had the good fortune of running into Hernán and José before my last shift. While the three of us waited in the pre-dawn darkness for the night drivers to turn in their cabs, we started talking Colombian food.
Among the many delicious things from his homeland I had to try, Hernán told me, was bandeja paisa (a.k.a. bandeja típica) from Pollos a la Brasa Mario on 37th Ave. and 83rd St. in Jackson Heights.
Last night, I dragged a food-loving friend to Pollos a la Brasa Mario (not to be confused with the other branch on Roosevelt Ave.) to taste Hernan’s bandeja ($12.50), along with a bowl of mazamorra (corn stew with milk -$2.95) and an arepa con queso (ground corn cake with cheese – $3.95).
Our feast in pictures:
I made the gigantic mistake of squeezing lime and stirring Mario’s spicy green salsa into this cold corn stew, which horrified our server so much that he brought us a new bowl and explained that we were supposed to eat it with panela, the unrefined cane sugar that’s ubiquitous and beloved in Colombia.
We liked the sweet version better, but it was still too plain to tear our attention away from the bar of bocadillo that came with it. The guava paste left a floral residue on our tongues – and moved us into a more tropical state of mind by the time our arepa con queso got to the table.
Since the arepa is to Colombia and Venezuela what the empanada is to Argentina or the taco is to Mexico, I was already biased in its favor. But I wondered how Mario’s would stack up to the Arepa Lady’s corn cakes (treasures you have to try if you’re anywhere near Roosevelt Avenue and 78th St. on a Friday or Saturday night).
Though they’re smothered in good salty cheese, Mario’s arepas are tougher than the (Sainted) Arepa Lady’s, and they don’t have that magical crispy on the outside, soft on the inside perfection that hers do. Or maybe it’s just the fact that hers are coated in butter and stuffed with cheese.
We put our arepas down when our bandeja paisa (a.k.a. bandeja típica) landed on the table.
Where to begin the attack on the Colombian national dish? I cut off chunks of chicharron (fried pork belly). My friend sliced the carne asada (top round pounded minute steak thin, seasoned and grilled just right). Between bites of meat, we grabbed spoonfuls of rice and beans and avocado and sweet plantain.
It was a solid plate of mountain food, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that bandeja paisa comes from the Andean region of Colombia, where, according to Erica at mycolombianrecipes.com, locals are known as ‘paisas.’
Far from being paisas, we couldn’t finish our chicharron, but we also couldn’t let good pork belly to go to waste. Our server was more than happy to wrap it up for us, and we spent the subway ride home brainstorming ways to transform it into some other version of delicious.
Feel free to weigh in with your pork belly recipes. And if you’re not a cook, the carne asada at Mario’s is worth a try.
Pollos a la Brasa Mario – Map it
8302 37th Ave – Jackson Heights, Queens
Tel. (718) 457-8800
Credit cards accepted
Would I go back? Yes – for carne asada.