La Cumbamba rocks. "Hotel California" is turned up to 11, competing against El Beso Azteca banging it out in the basement clubhouse. Fresh salsa, drippy candlesticks, and expired gladiolus loiter on mismatched tables under the sulk of a Keith Richards portrait and nudie ceramic figurines. William Restrepo, chef, waiter, owner, and antagonist of "poopy Colombians" who, he complains on the back of the menu, don't approve of his nontraditional Colombian fare, stops by to gauge your appetite and decide what you ought to eat. The menu is just a formality--sort of a guide to what you'll be served, like it or not. I liked it, but more for ambience than actual savory delight.
Arepas Delightfully gritty and surprisingly sweet corn cakes topped with a slightly salty crumble of cheese. The simplest--and best--dish that came our way.
Empanadas Thin-skinned and greasy, but good, the way corn dogs on the midway are good.
Yucca with Garlic Dry potatoes by any other name.
Plantains fried to crisp flavorlessness, decked with a single vein-intact shrimp, my least favorite breach of kitchen hygiene.
This is the winner, a thick stew with coconut-induced Indian overtones. Sort of paella gone Latin American.
Foreplay appetizer Plump portabellos submerged in balsamic vinegar, rumored to be grilled. A little longer on the fire would coax out their woodsy appeal.
Our big oval platters (we checked in as "very hungry") were also crowded with a chunk of enticingly crispy chicken, some cream-stewed chicken, and a chopped beet salad catchily offset by carrots. Stewed veggies, including lumpen potatoes and a juicy cross section of corn, lurked around the edges.
We finished up with deliriously intense coffee (if you prefer decaf, Restrepo adds extra milk), a glance through the photo books leaning stickily on a shelf, and a trip downstairs to catch the rehearsal in progress. Even if it wasn't the greatest meal, it was a great night.
La Cumbamba, 2311 W. North Avenue, is open from 11 AM to 11 PM every day. Call 773-384-9546 for more information.