In a FIFA-fueled dining choice, Jill and I decided there was no better place to watch a World Cup soccer game than the tiny Colombian hot spot, Mi Sitio Mercado and Restaurante Latino. Our hopes of witnessing some fabulous futbol, whilst enjoying our very first local foray into truly authentic Colombian cuisine was quickly validated, as we grabbed the last two remaining seats at the counter. There are no actual tables at Mi Sitio, only the counter around the open kitchen, and another counter along the wall. Almost as importantly, there was a large, flat-screen television tuned to Telemundo, and we immediately found ourselves the only non-jersey wearing, non-Colombians during this first round knock-out match against Uruguay. (Insert cheap joke about catching “a bite” here.)
I don’t know what it was exactly . . . maybe the friendly staff, the tasty food, or the unbridled joy of the patrons that flocked in to watch Colombia beat Uruguay, but Jill and I quickly decided Mi Sitio is definitely one of those “hidden gems” that we absolutely LOVE finding in Sarasota. Seriously, one of the patrons gave me a Colombian futbol vest to wear during the game! And then he wouldn’t take it back! That, my friend, is a passionate fan!
Because we could never expect to recreate what a fun and emotionally charged afternoon it was watching the futbol game with such unbelievable fans, we made plans to come back for the “normal” dining experience at Mi Sitio, less than a week later. Our second stop was for dinner, but Mi Sitio is probably a better choice for lunch or early dinner, since these hard working folks close at 7:00 every day except Sunday, when they close at 4:00.
Tucked away in the Forest Lakes Shopping Center on the southeast corner of Beneva and Webber, you may agree that, upon first glance, Mi Sitio looks like any number of Latino specialty stores . . .but like an old-time box of Cracker Jack, this mercado has a delicious prize inside.
Mi Sitio Restaurante (mi sitio means “my place” in Spanish) is tucked away at the back of the market and, counting the bar stools along a ledge running the length of the wall and the countertop seating around the kitchen, probably doesn’t seat more than 20. But what it lacks in space, it more than makes up for in atmosphere, as Mi Sitio transports you about 23 degrees latitude due south to South America. (Yeah, I Googled it!)
Now, before I go into the menu, let me tell you a little bit about my wife, and her devotion to the arepa. I cannot count the number of art fairs and street festivals that we’ve attended where I’ve asked the simple question, “Do you want a bite to eat?” only to have her respond with another question . . . “Do you think they have arepas here?”
And then we walk, and walk, and walk the entire length and depth of the festival until we find an arepa stand, where she happily snaps up one of South America’s most easy to love street foods. Fortunately, the front page of Mi Sitio’s menu has more than a few arepa’s to choose from.
The arepa is a corn cake made with either white or yellow cornmeal. You can enjoy a plain arepa as an accompaniment to an entrée, or topped with any variety of meats and cheeses as a side dish or appetizer. We had the Arepa Mi Siteo on our first visit, which was a white corn arepa covered with every possible meat and cheese in the kitchen, and – when paired with an ice-cold beer – would be pretty much all I would need if I weren’t sharing with Jill!
But on our second visit, Jill ordered the Arepa de Chocolo, the only arepa on the menu described as sweet. This version is a sweet corn cake topped with queso (cheese) that’s toasted until the cheese is bubbling and brown along the edges. What an easy way to make my love happy!
Jill’s entrée choice of the Carne Desmechada featured a traditional seasoned and tender shredded beef, rice, pinto beans and sweet plantains. Also offered are some condiments in squeeze bottles consisting of a cilantro mayo (cilantro ANYTHING works for me), and a tomato mayo, as well as a small bowl of seriously incendiary house made salsa, for those who revel in all things spicy. For me, it’s a little dab’ll do ya, thank you. Everything at Mi Sitio, including the sauces, breads, rolls, empanadas, and condiments are made in-house.
On the advice of the friendly proprietor Juan, I went with the one size fits all (or perhaps one size feeds all) Bandeja Paisa, which includes rice, beans and steak, and deep fried pork belly (that’s the pork belly on top), and sausage, and egg, and sweet plantain, and an arepa corn cake. Whew! Seriously? This could easily pass as an entire buffet on a plate! Did I miss tasting anything on the menu? There wasn’t even room on the plate for the beans! Less than halfway through this feast, I pulled out a red card on myself, and threw myself “out” of the meal.
In fact, both Jill and I had more than enough for a satisfying meal of “just-as-tasty-the-next-time-around” leftovers the next night, but you’ll just have to visit for yourselves and marvel at the “real deal” food at unreal (read: skimpy) prices!
As for the aforementioned weekend specials, and for those with perhaps more intrepid palates, Saturdays feature a Sopa de Mondongo, or traditional tripe soup, and both weekend days feature a dish of Bistec a la Criolla, or beef tongue in a Creole sauce, which we tried during the World Cup game on our first visit. Believe me, the Bistec a la Criolla is a melt-in-your-mouth creation, and not something most of us can duplicate at home!
So what are you waiting for? The flavors of Colombia await! En sus marcas, listos, ¡comer!