The Boston Phoenix
March 23 - 30, 2000

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Camino Real

Meat 'n' potatoes from the equator

by Robert Nadeau

dining out
Camino Real
48 Harvard Avenue, Allston
(617) 254-5088
Open daily, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
MC, Visa
No liquor
No smoking
Sidewalk-level access
I've long touted Colombian food as a meat-and-potatoes answer to middle-American cravings. Except for coastal strips, Colombia is a mountain country where people eat to stay warm and don't feel the usual equatorial urge for fiery spices and exotic fruits. But outside Eastie and Chelsea, Colombian restaurants have been rare in these parts: Camino Real is the first in mainland Boston in more than 15 years.

The most populated parts of Colombia are like three countries divided by north-south mountain ranges, a fact that has figured substantially in Colombian history and the novels of Gabriel García Márquez. The cooks at Camino Real come from Medellín, the unofficial capital of the middle valley. This is a departure from most previous restaurants, where the focus has been on Cali and the western valley. You don't need to know this to enjoy the food. In fact, most Americans will not need to know anything to enjoy this food.

In all mountain cultures, soups are important, and Colombian soups are among the best. The sancocho ($3/$5.50/$7) has a powerful clear broth of oxtail and cilantro, with big pieces of starchy yuca as a foil. The sopa de mondongo ($3/$5.50/ $7) has a thicker yellow stock, like an old-fashioned chicken soup, and only a few diced bits of buttery tripe. The broth is thick with vegetables. A special on sopa de tortilla ($3) had the most vegetables, in a lighter stock with a strong flavor of browned bread. I expect that the medium-size soup would be lunch for most of us, with the largest size reserved for major appetites.

Fried foods are typical appetizers. Empanadas ($1 each) have a mild knish-like filling and a yellow cornmeal shell, and (unlike most Latin empanadas) they are fried, not baked. The hot sauce with them is pickled and tastes rather like the hot-pepper spread in Boston sub shops. Colombian-style tostones ($2) are thinner and crunchier than the usual Caribbean version of these fried green plantains; maduros ($2) are riper and sweeter plantains cut into thin strips.

Yuca frita ($2) is strips of yuca cut like steak fries. Since yuca is starchier than potatoes, fried yuca usually requires a dip. The one here is mustard-mayonnaise, which is a new twist (the Brazilians, for instance, use garlic oil) and pretty good. If you're only getting one fried dish, though, make it the tostones.

Somewhere between the appetizers and the entrées is a platter of a giant tamale stuffed with pork, with rice on the side. The tamale is square and wrapped in banana leaves like a Chinese sticky-rice tamale, but it's twice as big.

The most impressive entrée is probably arroz con camarones ($11.50), which looks like a mound of Spanish rice and tastes like a first-class risotto. It also comes with five tostones on the side, which immediately puts it above any Italian risotto plate I've ever had. The more pretentious "paella real" ($16), which adds pork, sausage, chicken, and mock crab to the mound of rice, actually seems to dilute the effect, although the rice is wonderfully flavored.

The value meal -- for both flavor and filling you up -- is pollo a la criolla ($7.75): grilled chicken with a brilliant sauce of cilantro-rich vegetable purée, and some potatoes, yuca, and stewed vegetables to show off that sauce.

Some larger appetites will be attracted to the combination plates, such as the típico paisa ($6.50/$8.90). Imagine a mixed grill plus a mixed fried plate, heaped with rice and beans and topped with a fried egg, and you have about half the idea. This is often called a "plato montañero," both for the mountain of food you get and for the mountain-climber's appetite you need to finish it. What's that comb-like object? That is your chicharrón, basically a slice of pork-shoulder meat, fat, and skin, all deep-fried to a crisp. You'll like the salty little steak and the sweet plantains together, maybe with the egg, or maybe save the egg for the rice and beans. Colombian beans are large, pink, rounded, and somewhat pasty, like big pinto beans, and stewed in a ham-flavored sauce. Colombian rice is buttery rich.

A specialty of grilled tongue ($8.75) is sliced like a steak and rather succulent, with some of the flavor of a chicken gizzard. Lomo saltado ($8.75) is a lightly breaded and fried pork sirloin. As is often the case with Colombian food, it reminds me of an American comfort food, the pork-sirloin cutlets they used to serve at the Model Café. These grilled platters also come with rice, beans, salad, and maduros, so you won't starve.

Desserts run to fruit smoothies and grain-based milk shakes, but there are a variety of things that go well with coffee ($1). The flan ($2.50) is enriched with cheese. Arequipe ($2.50) is the Colombian version of dulce de leche, long-cooked caramelized condensed milk, here foiled with fresh white cheese (like farmer's cheese). Canned figs in syrup ($2.50) also contrast well with the white cheese. Unusually, the coffee was somewhat weak. Colombian-restaurant coffee is typically exemplary.

Our waitress was thoroughly bilingual and an expert on the menu. The two rooms of the restaurant are quite nice, with a chandelier and some handsome stucco work and green wall tile held over from the Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant that used to be in the space. There are two large TVs, which were tuned our night to HTV, the Hispanic music station. Our dinner coincided with a rebroadcast of the Latin-music part of the Grammys, with sound in one room and none in the other. Fair enough.

Camino Real has applied for a beer and wine license, and already has a kids' menu with hot dogs and chicken fingers; there are a few pasta dishes for the truly xenophobic. Since it's already one of the great ethnic bargains of Boston, the restaurant hardly needs these improvements, but they do take away a few specious reasons not to go. My only caution would be to bring a serious appetite.

Robert Nadeau can be reached at

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