Walking into La Chiva is like coming home. Winter is still in full force in downtown Denver, Colorado, and the drastic 20 (and sometimes, 30) degree difference between day and night makes the brisk evening air feel that much colder. But being greeted by the smell of hot oil and spices and feasting your eyes on the greenery and vibrant colors in the cozy little restaurant are enough to warm even the coldest hands and cause even the fullest tummies to grumble.
Spanish music plays softly over the speakers while Carmen dances and sings along in the kitchen. She gives prompt service behind the register to her guests and always with a bright smile. Her husband, Jorge, is busy cooking in the kitchen. The Colombian couple are the proud owners of La Chiva, a restaurant specializing in Colombian cuisine which originally started as a food truck.
La Chiva – A Brief History
“La chiva” is a Colombian party bus and the perfect name for their food truck, which still makes appearances around the city. The couple thought it best to start as a food truck and when the time came, open a brick and mortar restaurant. The food truck has been traveling around Denver for 4 years and the brick and mortar was opened about 8 months ago.
The story of La Chiva was many years in the making. From an early age, Jorge could always be found in the kitchen. “Growing up, I loved food, I loved going to the kitchen. My brothers…they would tease me because a man’s not supposed to be in the kitchen.” Jorge immigrated to the United States with his family as a junior in high school. He attended college where he met Carmen, who had immigrated to the U.S. in order to further her college education. Carmen went into the healthcare field, while Jorge started his career in IT. He worked in the IT field until retirement, but opening a restaurant had always been his dream.
Carmen and Jorge lived in New Jersey, Chicago, and Atlanta before settling in Denver to be close to their collegiate daughter. “Everywhere I went, I wanted to find Colombian food,” says Jorge. Jorge decided to attend culinary school in order to get the skills he would need to achieve his goal. While opening a restaurant seemed intimidating, a chef at the culinary school suggested that he first open a food truck in order to get a feel for the food industry. And the dream what was La Chiva finally came into existence.
While the name “La Chiva” has been humming around Denver for several years, the restaurant is only 8 months old. “Having the restaurant, it gives us the chance to explore other things and serve other foods that we just can’t from the truck” says Carmen.
Although both Carmen and Jorge are from Colombia, they grew up in different areas and their experience of food was very different. Carmen hails from a city called Cali, a city near the coast where the food is characterized by freshness and vibrancy. Carmen remembers enjoying a lot of fresh fruit and fish in her hometown. Jorge, on the other hand, comes from the capital of Bogotá, which is high in the mountains. The population there enjoys dishes that are heavier in carbs (mostly in the form of root vegetables, such as potato and yucca) and meat. Soups are also popular in this region. When opening La Chiva, they decided to represent recipes and dishes from all areas of Colombia, even researching recipes suggested by others, both native Colombian and visitor alike. “Culture influences a lot, not only what we’re trying to serve but how it’s being received and perceived,” explains Carmen, who represents the food she loves by using as much organic food as possible. She even grows her own herbs for the restaurant, some of which live on the window sill at the front of the restaurant. “I grow a lot of the herbs…I try to have that sense of freshness.”
Opening a Colombian restaurant was a brave endeavor indeed, considering the majority of Latin food eateries in Denver feature Mexican cuisine, which is a very different dining experience. But Jorge stands by his food. “I was confident that once people started tasting it, they would appreciate it a lot more and learn about it. Then, I would be OK.” While admitting that it was a risk, Jorge also knows that having a unique flavor would be an asset. “I certainly love it so I figure, why wouldn’t people love it?”
The meal starts with a Latin food staple: empanadas. Many Latin dishes that are well-known in America are usually as variegated among the Spanish-speaking world as barbeque recipes in the U.S., and empanadas are no exception. At their core, empanadas are a filling wrapped in dough. These fillings can be savory (meat or vegetarian) or they can be sweet (usually fruit or chocolate) and the choice of dough is meant to compliment the filling. While usually fried, these sumptuous Spanish bites can also be baked.
Tonight, the appetizers are beef and chicken empanadas. The meat is tender and well-seasoned, encircled in a crispy pillow of masa (corn flour dough), making for a very rich and decadent empanada. On the side is a simple vinaigrette, which cuts the richness and completes the dish by striking a perfect balance.
Meat Empanadas with vinaigrette
Reflecting Carmen’s desire for freshness, the menu at La Chiva boasts fruit beverages made with tropical fruits of the region. These frothy fruit blends cleanse and refresh the palate.
Front: Limonada Cartegenera, Back: Guava Juice
Arroz con camarones (translation: rice with shrimp) is a deceptively simple name for a very flavorful plate. The combination of yellow rice; plump, pink shrimp; and motley pick of vegetables makes this dish a celebration for the eyes and the taste buds. Spices from the rice combine with natural sweetness from the shrimp, peas, and carrots and earthiness from the onions and beans to give this dish a well-rounded flavor harmony.
The arroz con camarones is served with a side of both savory and sweet plantains. Plantains are plants that resemble bananas in appearance – they start out a vibrant green but turn yellow as they ripen. Both green and yellow plantains are cooked and eaten and while they are the same plant at different stages of ripening, the have an immensely different flavor.
Green plantains are usually fried twice and then dusted with salt. Their starchiness is closer to a potato than at banana at this stage and their taste and texture is similar to a thick French fry – salty and crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Yellow plantains, on the other hand, are sweeter, yet still very starchy. They can be baked, but are also usually fried. The cooked yellow plantain tastes sweeter, like a caramelized banana with a toothsome texture, making it a harmonious side in both sweet and savory applications.
Arroz con camarones
The Bandeja Moñatanera (literal translation: “mountain tray”) is a traditional Colombian dish that arranges red beans, white rice, chorizo (Spanish sausage), sweet and savory plantains, arepa (flatbread made from cornmeal), chicharrón (pork belly), pork ribs, avocado, and a fried egg together. This dish is a deconstructed plate: the guest can combine each element in any way desired to experience a plethora of flavor combinations. The red beans are served in a deep, rich broth and the meats are charred and smoky with plenty of melty fat. The avocado and fried egg provide a complimentary creamy element, while the arepa is warm and homey. Any pairing of two or more elements creates a unique palate experience, new and exciting until the last bite.
Traditionally, flan is a Spanish dessert custard with a caramel syrup topping. The desserts served at La Chiva are specials – not on the regular menu. One of the special desserts tonight features this traditional favorite with a La Chiva twist: coconut flan.
The flan is a thick custard bursting with coconut flavor and a hint of almond extract. The warm, nutty flavor pairs with the milky consistency and light sweetness of the dessert – a rich, dark cup of coffee makes the perfect couple.
“Is it like you remembered?” inquires Carmen gleefully. The customer responds with an emphatic “Oh, yes!” and Carmen smiles brightly, then starts chatting in Spanish with another guest paying at the register. Jorge stands behind the kitchen counter, sporting his signature brown fedora. He waves at customers leaving the warm restaurant and venturing into the snowy and bleak evening air.
Indeed, culture is an important ingredient weaved into every recipe made here at La Chiva. A strong sense of connection with the community permeates this snug little restaurant, coupled with a comforting hospitality that breeds contentment – no wonder this restaurant is full when there’s 5 inches of snow on the ground. It’s an excellent place to find shelter from the weather – and also a strong cup of Colombian coffee.
Jorge and Carmen – Owners of La Chiva
About the Author:
Colleen’s WordPress Blog
Born and raised a military brat, Colleen has always been passionate about cuisine and culture. Fascinated by infinite combinations of flavors, she uses every experience to influence her cooking and to hone her palette. Colleen currently resides in Denver, Colorado with her husband, Cecilio, and dog, Duncan.