LA BODEGUITA: CUMBIA DOWN THE ELEPHANT
I used to live in Camberwell. I got better, but it still haunts me. The dreary journey on the 68 bus to college and the combat alley of The Walworth Rd walking home on a Saturday night. The only good thing was the Walworth Rd cafe which offered a "Full English" for £1.95 which included eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, chips, beans, black pudding, bubble, tomatoes, two slices of toast and a mug of tea. The only downside was that they did not trust the punters not to nick the teaspoons,. So each table had one spoon chained to it which got an occasional rub over with a damp cloth when they could be bothered. Happy days.
I think, possibly, that I have not been back to that part of the world since 1985. If I have, I have happily blanked it from my memory and would happily never have set foot there again had a chum at work not mentioned that he and his Colombian wife regularly go to a restaurant at the Elephant. My ample ears pricked up and I took a note of the place and decided to revisit old stamping grounds and make a reservation for 7pm
La Bodeguita is situated on the first floor of that 60's monstrosity, The Elephant & Castle shopping centre which is rapidly becoming a little enclave for London's expanding Latin America community. With bookstores, bars and snack bars all offering specialities from back home, it was, by the time me and HP arrived shortly after 7pm, already packed with Colombians enjoying TV and drinking beer.
The restaurant itself is pretty sizable and not particularly cozy, but the welcome was friendly and we were shown to a seat with an exquisite view of the aforementioned Walworth Rd, ahem.
As is too often the case in ethnic restaurants in London, they had lots of echt brews on the menu none of which were available. So we had a pint of San Miquel. Like going to The Old Cock & Bull in LA and seeing a list of great real ales and being offered John Smiths Smooth. Ho hum
Still, we plodded on and ordered a range of starters
Chorizo Sausage - very different from others I have tried. The casing was tough but, once you had chomped through it, the inside was chunky and spicy and not bad at all
Empenada - Like a Jamaican patty but deep fried. What's not to like?
Patacon Con Carne Desmechada - Crispy fried plantain with shredded meat. The plantain was tough as old boots, but the meat was pretty good.
Chicharron Con Arepa - A slab of belly pork which was lovely and fatty with crisp skin and a disc of lumpen arepa which tasted like it had been sitting around for a while.
Then two main courses.
Bandeja Paisa - a Colossal portion of rice, pork belly, red beans,minced beef, chorizo, plantain, avocado topped off with a fried egg. Oh and one of those rock hard arepa. HP could barely make a dent in this there was so much. I helped out. Again, the belly was good, so were the beans.
Cazuela de Mariscos - a seafood stew which came to the table sizzling menacingly. Another enormo portion filled with prawns, mussels, clams and squid. Again, too much for even my appetite. But, what I did finish was rich and enjoyable.
In truth, the food was not that great. A couple of things were OK to good (the empenada, the belly pork, the red beans ) but the rest smacked of pre preparation and lacked freshness. The arepa could have been used to pave the roads and the plantain was not crispy but flabby and unappetising.
The bill including tip came to £45. A lot to pay for the quality if not the portions which sat in our stomachs so much we had to head on foot back to SOSHO to walk it off.
On a Friday and Saturday, they move back the tables and the expat community get down to some serious salsa dancing. All I can say, after a meal like that is that Colombians are made of much sterner stuff than we are.
My run in the morning may be interesting.