By TOM SCHERBERGER
Times Staff Writer
They had us at the chicken, but we didn't stop there.
Blood sausage, crispy strips of fried pork belly, juicy (and enormous) pork chops, flank steak with chimichurri sauce, pork tenderloin (smothered in cherries, pineapple, figs and prunes) and enough starch to induce a coma — red beans, mounds of white rice, fried yucca, ripe plantains, densely formed arepas. And, in case our doctors inquired, small salads of sliced tomato, beets and carrots atop shredded cabbage with a light vinaigrette.
Still, it was the chicken we kept talking about after that midday feast at La Cabaña Antioqueña.
Moist, tender and flavorful from three days of marinating and 3 1/2 hours of roasting on a rotisserie over charcoal, it was served with a bowl of dark red, slightly spicy, slightly vinegary sauce on the side. Delicious and, like just about everything else at La Cabaña Antioqueña, a bargain at $8 for a whole chicken, cut into pieces and served on a platter.
A waiter told me on a return trip that rotisserie chicken like this is on every street corner in Colombia, or at least in the state of Antioquia, the region this humble restaurant specializes in. Except that, in Colombia, the chicken might have been scratching around out back not long before it found its way onto the rotisserie.
Tampa has a deep and abiding affection for Latin flavors. Cuban restaurants abound, of course, but Colombian cuisine is a relative newcomer. Many of the ingredients are familiar — plantains, for example, or rice and beans (Colombians favor red beans over black). And portions tend toward the enormous.
The past decade has seen a boom in the city's Colombian population, and with it growth in Colombian restaurants, many of them along N Armenia Avenue, a United Nations of food.
When Jonathan Betancur's dad opened La Cabaña Antioqueña 10 years ago, there were only a couple of other Colombian restaurants in Tampa, and neither served Colombian-style rotisserie chicken.
"Rotisserie chicken is very big there,'' said Betancur, 23. "We noticed no one was selling that. It was a product we could bank on.''
They perfected the chicken through trial and error, he said, and the marinade is a closely guarded family secret. "Only three of us know the recipe,'' he said, though pineapple juice is the base.
Betancur has worked at the restaurant since he was 13, starting as a dishwasher. Now he runs the place with his parents, Laura and Wilson. An aunt and a grandmother work in the kitchen, a cousin waits tables, another cousin buses tables.
Everything, he said, is made from scratch, from the salsa that accompanies the chicken to the blood sausage featured on one of the many groaning platters of meat and starch.
Most of the plates are in the $10 to $12 range, and nothing is more than $20. Leftovers are common. "We Colombians tend to have oversized portions,'' Betancur explained. "We don't want anyone going home hungry.''
Tom Scherberger can be reached at (727) 893-8312 or [email protected]