Almost every entrée and side order at El Bolivar in Chatsworth comes with a humble arepa, one of those innocuous little South American white corncakes. They're smaller than the palm of a child's hand. But take a bite, quickly: They're an utterly extraordinary nibble, a meltingly tender fluff of cornmeal and cheese, barely held together by the thinnest skein of crispy outsides. They're like the softest, tenderest, velvetiest grits you've ever had, only even softer than that.
Marisol Lara and her mother, Myriam Lara, own El Bolivar and cook Colombian food, mostly according to family recipes passed down through Myriam. The secret here, Marisol says, is in her mother's dedication to making her arepas from scratch, to a degree of effort that might seem unthinkable to most. Myriam Lara makes the arepas from corn that she grinds by hand. She cooks fresh corn, removes the corn from the cob, grinds the corn niblets and then blends the ground corn with fresh mozzarella and pats out each arepa.
The process takes hours, Marisol says. This is why El Bolivar's arepas are almost inconceivably, moistly alive.
Eat the arepa by itself. Get it with cheese. Stack it with meat and egg. Top it with a slice of avocado and experience the twin softnesses of avocado and arepa melting into one another. But eat it carefully, with your eyes closed, feeling it fall apart in your mouth. Myriam put in the effort, and this arepa deserves your respect.
El Bolivar is an unusual place. It's smack-dab in the middle of the Valley, basically in the middle of suburban nowhere. It's a small, neat, nice-looking place. It's also a little more expensive than you might expect for Colombian food, but this is a higher level of cuisine than we're used to getting.
Myriam's culinary style is very specific, and you may have to adjust your expectations. For many Angelenos, Latin American food means bold flavors, big platters and dense, heavy chow. Not here: Myriam's cooking would fit in with the high-enders of Berkeley: quiet, clean and centered on bringing out the natural flavors of quality ingredients. Her cooking leans toward the subtle, the delicate and the refined. She spends hours simmering her soups, degreasing her sauces, guiding her food to a sort of glowing serenity.
An order of pechuga en salsa blanca brings you a platter of crisped chicken breast in a lightly herbed cream sauce — an old family recipe. Sancocho de cola de res is a resonant soup of oxtails and chunks of yucca and plantain, the whole thing infused with the clear tang of oxtail and herbs. Myriam is most proud of her tamales tolimenses, another family recipe, with rice, chicken and garbanzos and pork rib meat steamed inside a banana leaf.
You can order a variety of fried and grilled meats and sausages as sides or get a massive platter of them for dinner. The bandeja paisa, for one, will give you a fairly familiar selection of meat products. The fritanga, for two, is the true carnivore's delight, and includes fried pork ribs and blood sausage.
You'll also get profoundly porky beans to throw on your rice. There is an egg. You can make some wild stacks — yolky egg over meat over beans over rice, all teetering on a wedge of arepa. The flavors don't collapse into a muddied mess; you can still taste the warmth of the arepa underneath the density of flavors.
If you don't get the fritanga, make sure you get the sausages as side orders: the excellently chunky chorizo, and especially the perfect morcilla. That's blood sausage, and Myriam's handmade Colombian version might be the best blood sausage in town. She's somehow managed to whirl beef blood, rice bits and tiny, raisin-sized balls of pork into a perfect texture. It has a magically detailed crumbliness, like feta cheese made from the pure essence of meat and tastes like the freshest sort of iron-blooded funk you could imagine.
20454 Nordhoff St., Chatsworth; (818) 772-9366.
Appetizers and side dishes, $1 to $8; entrees, $10 to $18; drinks, $1 to $4.
Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday to Sunday. Closed Mondays. Soft drinks, fruit juices. Credit cards. Lot parking.