I feel almost certain that when the folks at Memphis in May were deciding on which country to feature in 2017, someone had recently eaten at either El Sabor Latino or Arepas Deliciosas, two Colombian restaurants that opened in October 2015 along the Summer Avenue corridor.
When asked what distinguishes Colombian food from other South American or Central American cuisine, both owners replied with similar descriptions — fresh, homemade, and healthy.
Blanca Simpson, who owns Arepas Deliciosas, first replied "delicious."
"Many people think that Colombian food is hot and greasy, but it's more natural and homemade," says the Pereira, Risaralda, native.
Esnet Acevedo, who owns El Sabor Latino with her son-in-law, Samir Restrepo, her daughter, Yuri Restrepo, and her husband, Carlos Ruiz, provided a similar description.
"It's home-cooked with quality — fresh and healthy," Acevedo says, with Samir translating.
El Sabor Latino, located just off Summer at 665 Avon, offers an extensive menu, including a daily plate plan. For $37.99, patrons can come in for five days and receive a different full Colombian meal each day.
Plates can come with steak, rice, fried plantains, arepas, a salad, and soup, or any sort of variety thereof. There are several dozen options to mix together.
Their biggest seller is the Bandeja Paisa, or "Typical Colombian Platter" ($14.25), with grilled steak, Colombian sausage, pork rinds, a fried egg, rice, arepa, sweet plantains, avocado, and red beans.
"We sell that every day," Samir, who was born in Cali, Valle del Cauca, says.
Simpson first opened Arepas Deliciosas in Bartlett in October 2014 and a year later moved the restaurant to Summer. She uses the arepa as a base for most of her dishes, such as the Arepa Rellena con Aguacate y Guacamole (stuffed arepa with guacamole and avocado, $5.50), or the Arepa con Carne (arepa with shredded meat, $7.50).
Simpson and her staff make everything from scratch, including the pork sausage and the arepas.
"We buy whole white corn, cook it, then grind it, then we make the patties," Simpson says.
Both restaurants offer hamburgers.
At Arepas Deliciosas, located at 3698 Summer, the hamburger comes on an, wait for it, arepa! and the customer can dress it with tomato, lettuce, avocado, what have you ($7.50).
At El Sabor Latino, they offer it on an American bun but topped with potato chips and pineapple, along with all the other typical fixings ($8.75).
They do the same thing with their hot dog, topped with potato chips and pineapple, as well as bacon, cheese, ketchup, and mayonnaise served on housemade bread ($7.99).
Samir and team — his daughter, Mayerlin Restrepo, waits tables — prepare specialty plates on the weekends, typical Colombian dishes that are a bit more complicated and more difficult to prepare on a daily basis.
"Our tamales are big," Samir says. "They come on a big plate. Different states make them in different ways. Ours is from Cali."
They wrap it in a plantain leaf and stuff it with pork, potato, carrot, onion, tomatoes, and their own special seasoning.
Arepas Deliciosas serve up daily soup or salad specials, such as Cazuela de Frijol, Arroz, Tajada de Platano, or bean casserole with rice and a slice of plantain ($7.99).
Both restaurants serve breakfast.
No one can talk about Colombian cuisine without mentioning the juices. Both offer a long list of juices to choose from maracuyá (passionfruit), mango, guanabana (soursop), and many more.
"These are all my mother's menu," Simpson says. "This is what I ate growing up."
"In Colombia, my mother-in-law cooked, and when she moved here, she worked in a restaurant," Samir says.
"When we first moved to Memphis, when I would go to Florida or Georgia, I would go straight to a Colombian restaurant because there was nothing here. We took a chance opening a strictly Colombian restaurant. Nobody knew what it was.
"I think it's good what the city is doing [with Memphis in May], so that we can know different cultures. Memphis is growing, and we have more cultures coming in. It can open people's eyes."
El Sabor Latino, 665 Avon, 207-1818. Open Mon.-Sat., 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sun. 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Find them on social media.
Arepas Deliciosas, 3698 Summer, 409-3396. Open Mon. - Thurs., 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Fri., 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sat., 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Sunday. Find them on Facebook.