Blocks away from a kaleidoscopic public mural evoking the history and traditions of Buffalo’s Hispanic community stands another newcomer to the corridor of Niagara Street venerably known as Avenida San Juan.
Sabores de Mi Tierra Colombiana, which translates literally to “Flavors of My Colombian Land,” has been open just under a year, but its relative infancy is belied by food richly suffused with place and heritage.
We arrived late morning on a Saturday to find the place empty, save for a man ordering takeout. It was just as well, though, because Sabores is a small café with few tables and chairs for eating in. The lull of guests guaranteed us seating.
Unburdened of the pressure to claim a spot, we were free to peruse the menus posted at both ends of the service counter. There, a woman with the air of owner greeted us warmly and humored our indecisiveness as we hemmed and hawed over sandwich options, lunch special permutations (steak, pernil, chicken, chorizo or chicharron with sweet plantains, rice, and red or black beans), five varieties of arepas, and shakes in tropical fruit flavors like mamey sapote, soursop, tamarind and lulo.
Larger platters of Colombian specialties, like the breakfast staple bandeja paisa, also piqued our interest, but were priced beyond what is considered cheap eats.
Fortunately, the rest of the menu gave us plenty to chew on.
We sipped a lulo shake ($3.99), which was tart and honey sweet, as we watched a man the owner intimated to be her husband prepare our arepas.
Arepas are savory corn flour cakes that can be baked or griddled, puffy or flat, eaten plain, or stuffed or topped with flavorful ingredients. At Sabores, they are of the open-faced variety, cooked to golden brown on a flat top like dense diner-style pancakes.
Our arepa con queso ($2.99) was a simple affair; its only flourish was a melted blanket of white, mild cheese with an appetizingly sour finish. My knee-jerk reaction was to add salt, but a slather of vinegary green hot sauce did as good a job or better of waking up the arepa’s sleepy flavors.
The arepa Cubana ($5.49) was a more ornate, fork-and-knife production. In this case, the griddled arepa served as a firm foundation to a heap of sticky rice and black beans adorned with snappy chorizo, caramelized plantains, and crunchy, chewy pork belly. The assemblage sheened with a slick of porcine fat but was resplendent rather than greasy.
The honor of my favorite bite, however, goes to Sabores’ Cuban ($8.99), which was served on a full loaf of Italian bread expertly pressed to give the sandwich its requisite exterior crunch. Inside, tender, unctuous pernil (roasted pork) was married with thin slices of ham, more of that mild cheese, and an aioli-like condiment.
Purists beware that there was nary a pickle or dab of mustard on this behemoth, but that was nothing more of that perky hot sauce couldn’t fix.
I was less enamored with my lunch special ($8.99), which I selected with chicken, hoping for poultry that was stewed or roasted and falling off the bone.
In reality, it was chopped breast meat that had seized into tight nuggets with the heat of the flat top. It wasn’t offensive, but knowing I could have had more of that succulent pernil left me with a severe case of orderer’s remorse.
And so, if there is one moral I can offer to this tale of affordable dining, it is to live a life without regret. Always order the pork.
Sabores de mi Tierra Colombiana
247 Niagara St. (322-7179)
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Price range: $1.50 to $5.99 for appetizers. $5.99 to $8.99 for sandwiches. Lunch specials for $8.99.
Wheelchair-accessible: Entrance is at street level.
Gluten-free options: No special menu.