Barranquilla, Colombia, is a city known for its colorful “Carnaval de Barranquilla,” a spectacular Mardi Gras festival held annually a few days before Ash Wednesday. But stellar restaurants, fit for Barranquilla natives and superstars Sofia Vergara and Shakira, are helping to attract more tourism.
Upscale restaurants such as Dijon, El Cellar, La Parillada Libanesa, Jack Bistro, Cachao, Al Arabi and La Cocina del Museo — to name a few — all reflect the international, multi-ethnic diversity of this city’s population.
Yet while Barranquilla’s restaurant scene has flourished in the past few years, locals point to La Cocina del Museo as evidence that coastal cuisine, or comida costeña, is still appetizing. In fact, Chef Wadner “Keith” Delghans Acenio focuses on it.
“All the dishes here at La Cocina del Museo are locally sourced and completely Caribbean. They reflect our coastal culture and old traditions that have been somewhat lost recently,” said the 26-year-old native Barranquillero.
Although I didn’t dine at all of Barranquilla’s fine restaurants, I did dine at several, including La Cocina. I ordered the highly recommended langostinos en salsa de corozo. This is an outstanding dish of giant, freshly-caught prawns drenched in deep red agridulce salsa .
The salsa is made from a local red Caribbean fruit. But, despite the term “salsa,” it was not spicy. The menu included typical Colombian food such as the arepa. The cornmeal is shaped into a pancake-like dough and deep-fried, according to coastal tradition.
At La Cocina, the traditional arepa — filled with soft, white local cheese — is called matrimonio or wedding. Another coastal mainstay is the patacon. The green plantain is often flattened and deep-fried. Here they are used liberally as edible garnish and in several dishes.
“I like to use the platano [plantain] to give life to the Caribbean-style dishes. I try to extract all the platano’s essence, transforming it from its original state into something even more delectable,” said Delghans Acenio, who studied at Escuela Centro Inca de Barranquilla gastronomic academy.
The indoor-outdoor restaurant is adjacent to the new Museo del Caribe, near Parque Cultural del Caribe. The restaurant seats only a handful of customers, so reservations are recommended.
Restaurante La Cueva is another place upholding old traditions. Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel García Márquez (who wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude) dined and drank at La Cueva, a hangout for writers, journalists and philosophers on the older side of town at Carrera 43, No. 59-03.
The famous writer frequented La Cueva when visiting Colombia’s “Golden Gate” port city to hear music and meet with friends. But those who’ve been there said delicious homemade food and the history-laden atmosphere are worth the trip.
No doubt Shakira and Sofia are thrilled to dine at all the new, high-end restaurants when visiting their hometown. In fact, friends who saw them grow up said the superstars are proud their daily foods like the arepa and plantain are now local haute cuisine.
But many younger, well-heeled and well-traveled Barranquilleros, including the current Miss Universe, Paulina Vega, want more eclectic food choices such as those offered by Jack Bistro Gin Bar & Food.
Tucked into the lively Carrera 51B, No. 79-168, this restaurant exudes old European charm. Lanterns light the way into a casually elegant space where an old-fashioned bicycle catches my eye.
I chose fresh, Atlantic salmon en salsa de tamarindo and Bacardi, which was excellent. My hubby chose prime rib with seasoned potatoes. He said the prime rib was the best he’d had in years. But if you plan on dining at one of the city’s most chic restaurants, make reservations here.
At Cachao, at Carrera 51 at Calle 80, I indulged in langostinos rebosados en coco. This plate full of freshly-caught grilled seafood seasoned with coconut sauce was to die for. Another popular item is the ceviche de pulpo, or octopus ceviche.
Cachao’s popularity is actually due to a live band that plays Cuban favorites and salsa music on weekends. The food, wine and spirits are great. My one caveat is dine before 9 pm to avoid eardrum-bursting loud music. Otherwise visit this website.
It’s a vibrant city of nearly two million people. Just two hours and 30 minutes by air from Miami, Barranquilla attracts hordes of visitors annually to its “Carnaval,” second only to Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro in global prestige.
But it’s not enough to know that and the fact that Barranquilla is Colombia’s fourth largest city after Bogota, Medellín, and Cali. In order to understand this city’s most important festival and diverse food culture, one must glimpse into its history.
Indian tribes ruled the area before the arrival of the Spanish, who left more than 200,000 African slaves on the shores of Cartagena, Barranquilla’s popular neighbor to the south. Despite the vestiges of slavery, Africans established a stronghold in Barranquilla alongside Colombia’s natives.
Although part of the early conquest of the Spanish empire dating to the 1600s, Barranquilla was not officially recognized as a town until 1813. It derives its name from the Spanish word “barranco,” which means cliff or steep riverbank.
The city emerged as a haven for European and Asian immigrants, especially during and after World War I and World War II. So it’s not unusual to find descendants of Lebanese, Italians, Jews, Germans, and of course, Spanish, among the city’s diverse population.
This global ethnicity is reflected in the restaurants and bars now more than ever, which is why I was thrilled to dine at Al Arabi. Situated inside Bella Vista shopping mall, Al Arabi offers some of the best authentic Middle Eastern food in the city.
I ordered of kabbe asado al carbon, a deep-fried, crunchy croquet accompanied by tahine and tabule. Slices of homemade pita or naan and tasty hummus rounded out my plate. The selection of wines includes reds from mainly Chile and Argentina. Check it out.
On our last evening in this restaurant-rich city, we were invited to dine at La Diva Pizzeria. A truly authentic Italian pizzeria, La Diva offers some of the best, most eclectic pizza I have ever tasted.
Our group ordered four so that we could all taste the different types. My favorite was sprinkled with truffles. The rugula pizza and one topped with prosciutto were good as well. Check them out.
During my October visit to Colombia, each American dollar yielded 2,800 pesos. That’s why a couple can afford the inexpensive luxury of dining out almost the whole time you’re there. That said, we didn’t break the proverbial bank at any of the fine restaurants we visited.
In fact, the most expensive evening out included several glasses of Chilean wine. Still, our bill came to only 48 American dollars for two! Obviously, the U.S. dollar goes much farther in Colombia than in other places. This is yet another surprising advantage in visiting this fascinating city.
One final caveat: Barranquilla’s year-round hot weather is not for the faint of heart. So wear cotton or gauze clothing and be ready to seek shelter from the hot sun 24/7 in a string of both local and American hotels, including Hotel Four Points by Sheraton, the Hilton Garden Inn, and the Hampton.