268 High St Windsor, VIC 3181
|Opening hours||Wed-Fri 5.30pm to 10pm; Sat noon-10pm; Sun noon-9pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9995 6120|
There are around 5000 Colombians living in Melbourne and sometimes – weekends, especially – it feels like most of them are at La Tienda, enjoying a taste of home. The colourful family restaurant opened six months ago with three words in mind: culture, passion and nostalgia. They're hitting their KPIs.
Collage murals plaster the walls depicting BMX stars, festivals, iconic sites, soccer, soccer and more soccer. The TV shows Colombian dancing. Number plates, hats, album covers and souvenirs are proudly displayed, all pointing the way to the north-western tip of South America. Bright tabletops, a long banquette and the likely presence of the owners' cute kids all add to the friendly, welcoming feeling.
La Tienda's tagline is "100% uncut street food", which covers the hotdogs, burgers, arepas (a sturdy cornmeal pancake) and other stuff showered in crisps and covered in melted mozzarella.
However, it's the homestyle dishes that prompt the most misty eyes from expats: the bandeja paisa, a platter to see you through 'til tomorrow, the ajiaco, a chicken soup, and drinks like the Pony Malta, a malt soft drink.
The flavours are straightforward and mild, the same elements – arepas, chorizo, rice, corn – turn up again and again, and everything is served with pride. If you're not Colombian, there'll be much solicitation to ensure you're enjoying.
The kitchen is overseen by Gilma Gomez, who moved to Melbourne with her family in 1974 and was finally – after decades of begging – convinced to lend her cookery nous to a restaurant. La Tienda is owned by her son John; daughter Melissa is the manager.
It's John's rhapsody to the signature dish, the bandeja paisa, that's on the laminated menu. "If I could choose my last meal before I die it would be this one," it reads.
This dish includes a bowl of braised red beans, a length of chicharron (fried pork belly), minced beef, Colombian chorizo (a chunkier, milder sausage than the Spanish version), sweet ripe plantain (a starchy banana), avocado and arepa. And a fried egg. Oh, and rice. It's a lot of food!
There's a kids' version with smaller portions and a fried quail egg – it's very cute.
The ajiaco is my favourite dish, possibly because it's never the wrong day for a comforting chicken soup, but also because it includes three types of potatoes – white, yellow, and a small creamy Colombian potato called papa criolla that's imported for this dish. The distinctive flavour in the broth is thanks to guasca, an aromatic Andean daisy.
Some dishes are probably easier to enjoy if you've grown up with them. I was perplexed by the mazzamora, a bowl of corn kernels covered with milk with a smear of guava paste on the side. It made me think of corn flakes except without the flake. Later, I discovered that it's usually served with bandeja paisa.
The juxtaposition of sweet and savoury is a key element in Colombian cuisine, never better expressed than with the hot chocolate, which is served with fat slices of mozzarella cheese.
The idea is that you put a slice of cheese in your drinking bowl, top it up with hot choc from a pouring jug and give it an enthusiastic frothing with a big wooden paddle. It's a theatrical and fun way to enjoy a taste of Colombia.
Rating: Three stars (out of five)
Go-to Dish: Bandeja paisa.