In Colombian slang it means, “awesome” — and why not? Tucked away just south of the hustle and bustle of Nob Hill is Ajiaco, Albuquerque’s own little slice of Colombia. This cozy, yet surprisingly bright, airy new gem hosts old polished wood floors, a hanging wall of burlap coffee sacks and a staff eager to share their warm, palpable enthusiasm. It’s familiar and inviting while straying just far enough off the beaten path to feel like an adventure. Typical of Caribbean and Latin American cuisine, think first of a backyard barbecue—though one punctuated by subtle citrus, tropical fruits, potato weed and yuca instead of standard American fare. With none of the aggressive spice or heat you find in other Caribbean cuisine, Ajiaco is supremely focused on striking beauty and balance on every plate. We started with the logical choice, the ajiaco soup, and a chicken empanada ($1.85). It’s no wonder why they named the place after the soup—its warm, herbaceous flavor combines garlic, onion and a slice of corn on the cob, and inundates the bits of potato and torn chicken within. The flaky crust of the empanada is crunchy and stuffed with a macerated blend of chicken and veggies that melt in your mouth without feeling too heavy. It came paired with a hot red sauce—the spiciest bite on the menu—that was silky with just enough bang to it. Next was the choriarepa ($5)—a hot-link style chorizo sausage, though not as spicy as its New Mexican cousin. It came dressed in ribbons of green onion atop an arepa (a hot-griddled corn cake) which is part pancake, part corn bread, and all good! The smoke and pepper were perfectly light on the salt and grease, something that often ruins a lesser sausage. For slight appetites, the generous apertivos are probably a meal, especially if you add an extra side or maybe throw an egg on top. Ah, but you came to eat, didn’t you? So strap in, and order up a plato. If we eat first with our eyes, then the bandeja paisa ($16) will absolutely delight. The thin-pounded steak comes capped with a crown of pork rinds, which have crunchy cartilage and sliced bacon-y hunks. You’ll be chewing them, but they’ll be worth it! That’s all surrounded by a morcilla (blood sausage), a fried egg over fork-perfect rice, a small arepa with the requisite sliced avocado, beans and plantains. Try chewing on a bit of everything all at once.The patacon con ropa vieja ($11) was a knock-out. The sumptuous stir of stewed-soft chunks of shredded beef came with flash-fried ripe plantains and topped by sliced avocado, green onion and a bowl of beans on the side. The slow-cooked beef is tender and luscious, and the plantains—only served when they are ripe enough to smash and fry—are the ideal sweet and crunchy companion. Again, a bite of everything all at once is not to be missed.If you’re vegetarian, you’ll have no problem making a satisfying meal of the fried yuca appetizer ($3.50), the plato vegeteriano ($9), and a side of papas croillas (creole potatoes, $5). The yuca is an earthy root that comes served like a stack of extra-thick fries. Their chimichurri is a pesto-like blend of herbs and olive oil that’s as pretty as it is pungent and accompanies as a dip. The stewed veggies of the vegetarian plate come atop blanched bell pepper discs, with plenty of rice, beans and a simple salad. The side of creole potatoes are soft-baked to salty perfection. For dessert, you really can’t go wrong with either the flan de cafe or (if they have it) the flan de mango (both $5). Be it deep coffee flavor accented by a raspberry puree, or the fresh mango with light caramel—both are served with a strawberry, and, like every single plate before, were gorgeous. If you’re in for something lighter, a guanabana jugo con leche ($4.50) is a frothed, sweet-juice milkshake that I could drink daily. It’s the same menu for lunch and dinner, maybe a daily special, and to our eye an early weekend lunch is how to beat the crowd of loyal regulars. From flavor to service to presentation, it’s the kind of attention to detail that elevates a meal to memorable. And if you need an excuse for a great meal, for food that is elevated without being pretentious, then consider this: Colombia has recently emerged from the shadow of its former cartel infamy to sign a historic ceasefire, potentially ending over a half-century of internal conflict — and that’s certainly something worth celebrating.
Ajiaco Colombian Bistro3216 Silver SE505-266-2305www.ajiacobistro.comHours: Tues-Sat 11am-8pmVibe: IncreíbleAlibi Recommends: Ajiaco soup. Duh