LA PAISA (1520 St. Clair West, at Caledonia, 416-787-1330) Modest Latin cantina dishes up Colombian meat 'n' potato-style home cooking in squeaky-clean digs -- and also sells used cars. Vegetarians beware: there's nothing here for you. Complete meals for $15 per person, including all taxes and tip. Open Tuesday to Sunday 11 am to 10 pm. Closed Monday and holidays. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: three steps at door, another two to dining area, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
hungry for country-style home cookin'? Also in the market for a 96 Corolla with low mileage? Come on down to La Paisa, a Colombian cantina on the western end of Corso Italia that's probably -- no, make that definitely -- the only restaurant-cum-used car lot in the city.La Paisa chef Gloria Cardona and her family run this unlikely business partnership. The spot's easy to miss, hidden as it is behind a doughnut franchise, but once spotted, difficult to forget. For starters, the tiny, tiled-roof building that houses this year-old eatery resembles the now long-demolished 1930s gas stations that could once be found all over town.
Inside, it's equally memorable -- two small, linoleum-floored rooms painted lively terra cotta and yellow: one a South American country store stocking maté tea, dulce de leche, preserved figs, creamed quince and guava paste; the other up two stairs, and set with a few cafe tables. A TV set blares while Julio croons en español on a boombox.
The Literary Device and I sort out the single-page laminated menu while sipping near-shakes listed as "jugos naturales" (natural juice) served soda-fountain-style in a tall glass complete with straw ($3.50 each). Of the seven available flavours, we select two -- blackberry and passion fruit. They're both wonderful, pulpy and slightly sour.
We're still trying to decide what to order when Cardona comes over and suggests Lechon Tolimense, rice with pork ($8), a Colombian specialty she makes once every two weeks. It's delicious, she says, pointing at a large, pigskin bladder in the display case across the room that looks like something Dr. Frankenstein crudely sewed up as a plaything for Boris Karloff.
Despite its unappetizing appearance, the Device bites. Shortly, she's shovelling down a plate piled with tasty Cajun-esque dirty yellow rice thick with shredded pork, onions, split peas and lentils.
She's a bit apprehensive about trying the triangle of charred pork fat -- is it an ear? -- that lies next to it, even though Cardona insists that it's the best part. We both sheepishly try a tiny piece and aren't converted. So as not to insult the chef, the Device wraps the offending fat in a paper napkin and stashes it in her knapsack as a special treat for her neighbour's dog.
Perhaps it's Cardona's limited English, but my medium-rare Entrana Asada ($9.50) shows up as a well-done fillet of flank steak sided with a very good eggy potato salad. A splash of aji hot sauce -- crushed garlic, onion and green chilies -- throws this substantial platter, and everything else for that matter, into overdrive.
Think of Sopa de Mondongo ($7.50) as a hangover helper. It's an extremely flavourful garlicky beef soup brimming with two large slabs of gelatinous tripe, cubes of cassava, waxy potato and lots of coriander leaves.
Call Arepa con Carne Desmechada ($5.50) an all-day instant breakfast with its thick arepa corn tortilla heaped with shredded beef, scrambled egg, tomato and green onion. Same with tamale ($8), a large banana-leaf wrapper stuffed with on-the-bone chicken, cubed carrots and stomach-soothing cornmeal mush.
Now that you're loaded up, can I interest you in a fully loaded one-owner 87 Ford Escort?