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Food Stuff: Colombian heaven

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Jorge Suarez has eaten many different kinds of food. He likes Middle Eastern cooking and has a fondness for Chinese. But Suarez is Colombian and says he knows what food tastes the best. "It's mine. What I cook. Sometimes I try Cuban or Puerto Rican. I think it's too much oil. They cook with a lot of oil and a lot of cholesterol, so I don't like that. The flavor is no good. I try to go to something downtown like Hard Rock Cafe with my children, but I don't really enjoy it because I don't like food without flavor.

"You know filet mignon? Filet mignon in Colombia for us is better. Here, they cook the meat on the grill, and they put it on the grill and put the mushrooms over it. And that's it. No sauce, no anything. We know better. We put bacon in the middle and we make a sauce with the mushrooms. We put the sauce over the meat, so it tastes beautiful. It's the flavor, man."

Suarez is the proprietor of Churrasqueria Las Tablas, a little Colombian place near Lincoln and Wellington. Suarez prepares everything himself, from the sides of fresh chimichurri sauce made from parsley, green and white onions, and olive oil to the caramel in a signature dessert served with seasonal berries. The main courses include grilled shrimp, quickly soaked in a marinade of lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, soy sauce, salt, and pepper; churrasco, a mallet-pounded, charcoal-grilled New York strip steak smeared with a secret mix of spices and served on a wooden board with plantain, fried yuca, and a baked potato; paella, with fresh seafood, mollusks, chicken, and homemade chorizo; and any number of other combinations and preparations, each one more tender than the next. Suarez's greatest pride, and tenderest achievement, is pollo al ajillo, a half-inch-thick chicken breast pounded flat and marinated in a spice mixture and an olive-oil-and-garlic sauce. Then there's the fish soup. Suarez says he'll hand grind 25 pounds of fresh fish to get the right stock, even if it takes him all day. "I make seafood soup with calamares, shrimps, clams, other fish, but it's like a cream. No soup. It's cream. The flavor of the seafood--it's beautiful, it's so beautiful."

Suarez is from Fusagasuga, a little village about 20 miles outside Bogota. His mother supported seven children by selling 2,000 homemade empanadas a day. Suarez's diet included a lot of vegetable dishes and a lot of beef, but his mother always prepared his food in a variety of ways. "I have five, six hundred recipes in my head," he says. "I never write anything down. I saw a good recipe the other day in a magazine, but I don't like to do recipes in the magazines. You can do the same thing. If you're someplace and you see some dish, you learn how to make it."

In 1977 the Colombian government began a charcoal-mining project on the country's Caribbean coast. Suarez headed out, along with 50,000 other people, and became a cook for the miners. He refined his cooking and added seafood to his skills at resort hotels in Barranquilla, Cartagena, and Santa Marta. After a while, he says, he would go jogging in the morning and run into American businessmen who would encourage him to open a restaurant in the U. S. For several years, starting in 1985, Suarez worked as a cook in Chicago, mostly at little Italian and Mexican joints. In 1991 he and his wife, Soraya, bought a tiny tacqueria at Irving Park and Damen and converted it into the first Las Tablas. In October 1994 the place burned down, and they lost their lease and customer base. Las Tablas reopened at its current location in a former Italian restaurant in late 1995, with a larger, better-equipped kitchen and a slightly fancier dining room.

Las Tablas is a Colombian haven, which is why Suarez is surprised that he has absolutely no Colombian clientele. "In New York City, the Colombian community is about one million. So every Colombian there goes to Colombian restaurants. No Americans. I never see an American eating in any Colombian restaurant in Queens. So I try to do my job for my community, for Colombians, but they didn't come. I don't know why. I did business with Mexicans, Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans, and now, a lot of Americans. Sixty thousand people here in this state from Colombia. I don't know why. It just didn't happen."

Suarez loves his native country and will talk for hours about its glories, but he's no culinary jingoist and will gladly cook for anyone. He's always trying new dishes and seeks tasters actively. If he gets no takers, he tastes the dishes himself. "I spend 96 hours a week working every day. I don't feel OK outside. I go outside, I don't like to stand in the streets. I enjoy it in my kitchen. I think this is my art, like a singer, like writing, like painting. I try to express my mind, because I love it. When I was 16 years old, I enjoyed it. Making flavor, and making food good, yeah? And I went to school, and I found the sauces and the garlic and how to move the knife. I found my mind in my kitchen. It's that way. The only way that I know in my life. Kitchen."

Churrasqueria Las Tablas, 2965 N. Lincoln, is open from noon to 10 Sunday through Thursday and from noon to 11 Friday and Saturday. Call 773-871-2414. --Neal Pollack

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jorge Suarez photo by Nathan Mandell.

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