By Rachael Jackson
After a week-long trip to Cartagena, the walled Colombian city whose brightly colored colonial mansions often house fashionable boutiques and hotels, I was stumped by how to sum up the food. Sure there are the staples: arepas (thick tortilla-like patties, often filled with eggs or cheese), patacones (mashed, fried plantains), and coconut rice (sweet, often with raisins), but something more is happening. Indeed, I realized the food here often seems to reflect the magic of the centuries-old Caribbean city itself—it’s steeped in a long history but also perpetually focused on the latest trends. If, like me, you search for dining experiences that define a place, here are five very different ways to please your palate in the historic district of Cartagena.
Gelatería Paradíso. The selection of fruit in Colombia is dazzling—and often mystifying to a North American who’s never heard of a guanábana or couldn’t identify a passion fruit in a lineup. For a quick sample of many of the country’s fruits head to this gelato shop on the Calle del Estanco del Tabaco, where you can try everything from the earthy, but sweet mamey to the pucker-inducing mamoncillo, in smooth gelato form. The counter staff happily gives free samples. Calle de la Estrella con Calle el Cuartel, +575 660 2533, http://www.facebook.com/gelateriaparadiso
Candé. With dishes such as plantain soup and rabbit in coconut milk, this brand-new restaurant sets itself apart by offering very traditional, but often hard-to-find Cartagena fare. Try the chicha, a fermented drink that’s been sipped in Colombia since long before the Spaniards arrived. Candé offers rice, corn, and pineapple-rice variations. Centro, Calle Estanco del Tabaco No. 35 – 30, +575 668 5291, http://www.restaurantecande.com/
Portal de los Dulces. From big glass jars, vendors sell homemade candies along this portico-covered walkway whose name roughly translates to “Portal of Sweets.” You might try dulce de leche fudge shaped as a tiny doll or a big coin. There are also endless iterations of sugary coconut and fruit concoctions, with flavors ranging from banana to tamarind. But the sweet street has an unsavory past—slaves were once sold in this plaza adjacent to the city’s clock tower.
La Galera. This tapas restaurant plays with Cartagena’s history as a target for pirates with a dining room that evokes the deck of a ship and a wait staff in buccaneer scarves and vests. But the mild kitsch is fun and shouldn’t lower your expectations for the food. The menu is filled with foodie delights, such as the feta-manchego cheese bolas served with strawberry preserves, or squid stuffed with caramelized onions, cream cheese, and a mint and cilantro pesto. Centro, Calle Ricaurte No. 2-10, +575 660 1110, http://www.lurecartagena.com
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Club de Pesca. Housed in the San Sebastián del Pastilillo Fort, this restaurant serves fresh fish and offers diners views of both historic Cartagena and the skyscraper-filled modern city across the bay. Ask to be seated at one of the “tronera” tables, which are nestled between tight spaces in the 1743 fort’s walls. Long ago, cannons fired from these nooks, but in modern-day Cartagena, you can sit there to muse over a list of international wines and enjoy sea bass wrapped in a banana leaf. Fuerte de San Sebastián del Pastelillo, +575 660-4594, http://www.clubdepesca.com/
Rachael Jackson is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and a former staff reporter for the Orlando Sentinel.