The humble hearth of El Fogon serves up Colombian comfort cuisine with a dash of national pride
OKLAHOMA CITY -- On a far-flung portion of NW 23rd Street, nowhere near the imposing and orderly buildings of the State Capitol, restaurants of various ethnicities stake out small nationalist claims. They are like little embassies serving the needs of palettes seeking escape from ordinary American food.
At a restaurant called El Fogon De Edgar, (2416 NW 23rd St) the cuisine of Colombia has brazenly seized territory once possessed by Mexico. A smallish building adorned with bold, spray-painted black letters that might announce a highway checkpoint operated by a drug cartel instead announces a Colombian restaurant, El Fogon De Edgar.
El Fogon is nestled inside what used to be Mi Casita Mexican Restaurant, judging by an old sign outside. Based on the design of the building, it wasn’t born a Mexican restaurant, either. The Alpine roof tells me this place may have started out under the control of Germans.
I hesitated a bit before entering. I’ve never eaten in a restaurant with a spray painted name on the exterior, not even overseas in a war zone. Also, I have more than a passing acquaintance with Spanish, but I didn’t know the word “Fogon.” The parking situation outside was already a nightmare and the automobile repair place next door (Kingsun Auto) had a sign announcing it was closed indefinitely. Inside, it appeared the occupants of Kingsun had only walked away a moment ago, leaving a yellow bag with a recent purchase sitting on the counter.
What on earth? I wondered. Bankruptcy? Police raid? Family tragedy? Or…
I made free with Kingsun Auto’s parking area, since they weren’t using it, and went inside El Fogon De Edgar. A cashier (who doubled as the only waitress) greeted me but couldn’t speak English. It didn’t matter. She was stunning with dark hair, fair skin, and knee high leather boots over tight black pants. Whatever “Fogon” meant it was looking pretty good.
The owner (Mr. Edgar, I presume?) rushed to the rescue of the waitress and spoke in fairly passable English, telling me about his $6.50 lunch special and wireless Internet. Inside, the restaurant was clean, cheerful, and looked family oriented. It was nothing like the impression I’d obtained from those spray painted letters.
More painted letters over the television still reminded me, however, this was El Fogon De Edgar. Bric-a-brac on the walls and ceiling celebrated the culture and cuisine of Colombia. Banners from some kind of Colombian soft drink called “Aguila” were pervasive in the way “Tecate” beer signs are pervasive in a Mexican restaurant. Even the walls themselves were yellow, blue and red like the flag of Colombia that was flapping off the roof outside.
Six dollars and fifty cents bought a light-yet-savory pork soup with potatoes, sprinkled on top with green herbs. The rest of the meal was a ball of rice, perfectly cooked, some salad, and potatoes served with orange peppers that were flavorful, not hot. A thin yet good-sized cut of beef completed the meal. My drink was served no-frills in the can without a glass, which happens to be the way I prefer it. For the money, and with wireless Internet on tap, it was a good deal. But there was no kind of sauce served with the steak or even a bottle of condiment, like ketchup or A-1, available on the table.
This must be how Colombians like their beef, I thought, and sprinkled on a little salt and ate it that way. It was actually pretty good when I alternated with bites of the potatoes and peppers. On another day I pressed for condiments and was offered an intensely green salsa in a red earthen jar, very tasty but not overwhelming to the dish.
Across the restaurant, somebody who worked there or may have been a friend of the owner was trying to learn English on a computer.
“I am a woman,” said the computer. “You are a man. Can I have a drink of water?”
The pretty waitress preferred to learn her English by watching an American romantic comedy with Spanish subtitles. Online content written by others who have been to the restaurant tell me sometimes the television shows a channel from Colombia.
Perusing the menu while enjoying my lunch special, I was struck by the commitment to Columbian authenticity. The top of the menu announced, in Spanish, only 100 percent Colombian food was served and bolstered its point with images of Colombian culture and national pride. The menu was heavy on fried corn pies and many dishes featured potatoes. Even Colombian soft drinks were available, and some kind of brown sugar beverage called “Agua de Panela.” Served with steamed milk it’s called “tetero,” a word that loosely translates as “baby’s bottle.” I returned a few days after my initial visit and tried the tetero. I found it sweet, creamy, and not the slightest bit jarring to the senses. It's true South American comfort food whose comfort can extend all the way to America.
Fried green plantains, known as “patacones,” were featured with a number of dishes. One signature dish called Tamal Tolimense is actually slow-cooked inside a plantain leaf. It features yellow corn meal mixed with various kinds of meat, plus rice and eggs. The all-knowing Internet says it’s one of the most important dishes in Columbian cuisine. Images on the internet show explosions of meat swimming in golden corn meal, wrapped in dark green leaves.
Wow. To think I’d never heard of it before.
I realized half a dozen meals at this place could serve as a fairly comprehensive course in Columbian cuisine. The lowest priced meal was $5.50 but most meals ranged in the 9 or 10 dollar range.
Before leaving, I forked out $2 for an imported can of Colombian apple flavored soda that announced its name in bold red letters, “POSTOBON.” I suppose if I grew up in Colombia, the can’s design would be as familiar as a can of Pepsi but to my eyes it was exotic and, therefore, attractive and desirable.
This is why I find myself inside a Colombian restaurant with spray-painted letters, because of my constant desire for the different, the exotic. Hundreds of meals can feature macaroni and cheese. Will you remember them? But in a lifetime, there should be at least one encounter with Tamil Tolimense washed down with Postobon.
Ideally, such a moment would happen in Colombia itself, but most times exotic locales are out of reach and you have to make do with NW 23rd Street, Oklahoma City.
Sigh. It still beats macaroni and cheese.
Later I returned, lured by visions of Tamil Tolimense from the internet. Fogon's take on the dish featured corn meal flour, of course, (not as colorful as what I'd seen on the internet, but tasty) big pieces of egg, vegetables, and bone-in chicken. The arrangement of the outer plantain leaf was much more orderly than I'd expected, the work of somebody intensely committed to making sure the signature dish would speak well. I was amazed by how completely the different ingredients, outside of the chicken, blended together into a hearty, flavorful mass. Though I'd expected an exotic dish what I encountered was, once again, deeply comforting and homey.
Later, I looked up the word “Fogon." I didn't know what I'd find. Castle? Fortress? A claim on territory that will be defended at all costs?
It turns out "Fogon" translates both as “oven” and “the hearth of a home.”
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