Cruising down Huffman Mill Road, the towering neon Cook Out sign is a landmark to the Elon University community. But looking past its shadow into the building right next door, there’s a cultural experience that many don’t know about waiting.
Enter Colombian Cravings, Burlington’s newest addition to its collection of Hispanic restaurants, and you’ll be greeted with a warm smile and the sight of cheesy bunuelos rising in the oven, mixed with the smell of Colombian cooking spices wafting in from the back kitchen.
Sit down and take in the colorful wall art that depicts food, coffee and the spirit of Colombia as the soft sounds of Shakira, Juanes and Carlos Vives reverberate throughout the cozy atmosphere.
The restaurant opened last November because owner Melba Aguirre saw a unique need for diversity in the Burlington food scene.
“Around here we have a lot of Hispanic restaurants, but they are mostly Mexican, so the picture of Latina food is Mexico,” Aguirre said. “And actually, in South America we have a lot of places and a lot of diversity.”
With Colombian Cravings, she hopes to shed light on that diversity while celebrating her own unique culture. Her sister, Maria Sarmiento, is the chef and uses family recipes to make dishes from various regions of the country, especially Cali and Medellin.
Out of all the pictures hanging on the wall, Aguirre’s favorite sits right at the entrance; the quintessential photograph of a farmer’s dirty hands holding freshly picked coffee cherries.
Upon arriving to the United States, she received judgment from Americans whose only association with the country was the Escobar cartel and the drug wars.
“The cherries represents what Colombia is,” Aguirre said. “This is what we make, this is what people live from — the coffee, not the drugs.”
Contrary to the southern perception of Latino food, Colombian Cravings doesn’t bring too much heat, and everything is made from scratch.
“We don’t cook with hot spices,” Aguirre said. “We just cook with a lot of flavor. We cook, we don’t open cans, and that’s what makes a good place.”
The most popular menu item is the bandeja paisa, a collection of steak, chorizo, rice, fried eggs, pork and fried plantains. Chicken, seafood and soups can also be found for a reasonable price of $10-$15 per entree, especially considering the portion sizes.
“In Colombia, we eat a lot,” Aguirre said.
While many times drinks are overlooked, freshly squeezed juices are a staple in Colombian culture. It is well worth the $4 for a glass of exotic juice that is unlike any supermarket carton available.
Family is central to people’s lives, and Aguirre hopes to recreate that family feeling for the Burlington community in her restaurant. At the end of every meal, customers are served a cup of Colombia’s world-famous coffee, just like you would receive at your abuela’s.
“In Colombia we don’t eat lunch, we come home for lunch,” Aguirre said.
The perfect combination of ambiance and flavor are no accident. This is Aguirre’s first time owning a business, and she thinks about the restaurant 24/7 and loves it.
“I work a lot because I want everything to be perfect,” she said. “I want people to walk out of here happy and say ‘This is really great,’ and not ‘Hmmmm, alright.’”