The empanada was born in medieval Spain, but it was in Latin America that it found its full expression.
The people of Mexico and Central and South America took what had started out as a large pie cut into pieces and made it into a hand pie.
Numerous variations evolved based on available ingredients. People in the Caribbean countries used a yuca- or plantain-based dough. In Colombia and Venezuela, fried empanadas made with corn flour were preferred. Argentines baked their empanadas in wheat flour pastry. Almost every country in the region has its own version, from the catabias of the Dominican Republic to the salteñas of Bolivia.
Albuquerque offers a wide sampler of empanadas at its restaurants and panaderias, but none are quite like the ones at Ajiaco Colombian Bistro in Nob Hill. Delicate domes of corn flour oozing with melted cheese and fillings like shredded beef, they are lighter and crispier than the far more commonly available wheat flour-based versions.
Colombian natives Nubia and Pedro Sabogal opened Ajiaco in 2014. The restaurant anchors a short stretch of dining and retail on Silver Avenue in Nob Hill. Though only a block from Central, it’s a relatively quiet, serene neighborhood.
Named for a chicken soup popular in Colombia, Ajiaco is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Out front sits a shaded patio decorated with string of lights. The dining room is small and bright, with a row of tables along the front facing the street. On the opposite side stands a series of curtains that serves as a privacy screen for the hallway that leads to the bathrooms.
The menu fits the casual vibe, with an assortment of empanadas and arepas, the corn cakes that originated in Colombia, for only a few dollars each. Most of the entrees are priced in the $15 to $25 range.
Our meal started off promisingly with a small bowl of the restaurant’s namesake soup, Ajiaco ($8), served on a rectangular plate with a scoop of white rice and a sliced avocado. The thick, slightly salty broth held hunks of white meat chicken around a piece of corn on the cob. Guascas, an herb that’s central to Colombian cooking, added an intriguing note of grassiness. The rice in the middle was a marvel, well-seasoned and packed with flavor, but the sliced avocado was past its prime.
The filling of the Empanada Hawaiian ($4) was mostly cheese, with a little bit of chopped ham mixed in. What pineapple was in there barely registered. Still, it was very tasty.
Ajiaco’s version of the Latin American staple Arroz con Pollo ($17) presented as a heaping mound of rice, shredded chicken and colorful veggies in a deep bowl. Everything looked familiar, but the addition of hogao, a Colombian creole sauce, gave the dish a welcome charge of spice and acid. The addition of three large fried plantain slices on one side of the bowl made the dish like meal and dessert in one.
It was accompanied by a simple garden salad elevated by the freshness of the ingredients.
Bandeja Paisa ($24), the platter of meats and rice that is the national dish of Colombia, originated among campesinos who needed fuel for long days in the fields. In Ajiaco’s version, the meats are the stars. Belying its shoe leather appearance, a steak hammered thin and grilled was fairly tender and even a little bit juicy. So too the spicy, deep-red chorizo sausage. A horseshoe-shaped crown of pork rinds made from fried pork belly were very crisp and not salty at all. If that’s not enough food, there’s a fried egg, the yolk cooked all the way through, draped over a scoop of rice, and a bowl of beans in a thin, smoky broth. The avocado on this plate was perfect.
Drinks are often a highlight at Latin American places, and Ajiaco is no exception. Tropical juices are available blended with ice or ice and milk. The passion fruit drink, Maracuya en Agua ($6), was tart and refreshing. Lulo en Leche ($6) showcases a tropical fruit native to Colombia that resembles a small orange but tastes like a blend of lime and pineapple. It was terrific, the milk taking the edge off the fruit’s tartness.
The menu winds down with three desserts: Coffee Flan ($6), Plantain with Cheese and Guava ($6) and Arepa de Chocolo ($7). The latter consisted of two corn cakes filled with cheese and drizzled with sweet cream. The whole thing was charred on the grill and served cut into quarters. Starchy and filling, it’s a good choice for people who don’t like a very sweet dessert. A cup of thick, strong Colombian Coffee ($3) helped cut its heaviness.
Everything on the menu is gluten-free the server told us. She was friendly and well-informed, and kept up a good pace until a couple of large parties showed up and slowed things down. Fortunately, a second server emerged to restore order.
After almost 10 years of operation, Ajiaco Colombian Bistro has become one of the most-loved restaurants in the city. And no wonder. It offers a comprehensive introduction to the cuisine of Colombia and its fascinating mix of Indigenous and Spanish influences. One meal here whets your appetite for more.