I’m sure you all know the old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Well it turns out, that’s often the case for restaurants too. I can’t tell you the number of times that we’ve wandered into unassuming little buildings or non-descript storefronts to find delightful and delicious meals waiting inside. Well that also happens to be the case when you walk into the Ponce Hotel on US 1. Until you cross the threshold, you might not realize that just inside the lobby is the latest culinary project co-founded by one of St. Augustine’s most beloved chefs, Norberto Jaramillo – De Leon Cocina.
Laid-back and welcoming, De Leon Cocina serves casual Colombian fare to hotel guests and locals alike. Norberto and his partner John Holguin have created a menu that rests on beautiful tradition and serve up dishes that are both unpretentious and visually compelling.
Served on a large wooden board, the Picada Colombiana is the kind of dish that you might at least want to consider sharing with the table. Otherwise, you might be facing a challenge. Of course, if you’re up for it, you’ll be treated to a combination of grilled steak, chicken, chorizo, and crispy pork belly. The meats are surrounded by yucca, green plantains, Andean potatoes, Colombian arepas, homemade pickled onions, sangria tomatoes, and a side of chimichurri. That’s a mouthful just to say. All on their own or eaten together, each ingredient is delectable – a veritable cornucopia of the best of Colombian food.
But though we could have easily been satisfied with just this one dish, the meal wasn’t over. Next to the table was the Shrimp Casuela – jumbo shrimp served in a tomato citrus coconut reduction along with long grain rice and green plantains. The sauce here is the real star, a complicated mix of sweet and savory that you’ll want to put on everything you eat. We were also treated to Shrimp Cocktail (Colombian style, of course) tossed in tomato aioli with lime juice, onions, cilantro, and a bed of green plantains. We may never go back to the American version.
Norberto called the Bandeja Paisa a typical Colombian platter. It also happens to be what I wish I could have for breakfast every morning. A grilled steak topped with a fried egg is garnished with some fresh avocado and served with chorizo, chicharron, arepas, sweet plantains, rice, and beans. Dangerously delicious, it isn’t overly dressed up. It’s simple, straightforward, and classic. Why mess with tradition?
Last, but by no means least, was the Chuleta Valluna – AKA pork Milanese, valley style. A citrus-marinated pork loin is breaded and served with rice, green plantains, and an organic green salad. Another dish that proves that if you’re perfectly prepared and decidedly delicious, there’s no reason to be complicated. Which seems to be the mantra of De Leon Cocina. They’ve created a menu that’s casual and accessible, with a reliance on the best parts of Colombian tradition.