Constanza Ortiz of Maite Catering pretended to glare at me when I liken arepas to pupusas. She is quick to distinguish between the arepas of her home country, Colombia, and the similar Salvadorean snack which she assures me are heavier and -- jokingly-- just not as good. Some claim that arepas are in fact Venezuelan in origin, but we didn't get into that. Arepas are made with a cooked arepa flour, filled with cheese and cooked on a buttered grill. While arepas have crept into corners of the San Francisco food scene, Ortiz is determined to bring a bigger taste of Colombia to the Bay.
Ortiz got her start with La Cocina two years ago, launching Maite Catering with a vision of making bite size treats with a little Latin flare. After a series of pop ups at El Rio and events like Carnaval, however, she noticed that it was the hints of Colombia in her cooking that had people coming back. She also realized that a bite wasn't enough and people simply wanted more. After lots of experimenting and plenty of positive feedback, Ortiz is making the jump to a dinner menu and simultaneously going all Colombian all the time. This is a transformation to get excited about.
We get caught up in countries of origin again as she gives Chile credit for baked empanadas, an assertion many an Argentinian, including San Francisco's own El Porteño, might contest. One of her own empanadas caught the eye of someone who had tried one at El Rio and he tracked down her stand through the chaos of Carnival to get his hands on another one. Colombian empanadas are fried and traditionally filled with leftovers. Ortiz envisions teaching a cooking class at the SF FoodLab, where she has done a few dinner pop ups, to show people how empanadas are something they can make at home. "My biggest goal is for people to try something different," she says. "It is so rewarding how excited they are about this food from Colombia."
She admits, of course, that other Colombians put her food to its truest test, but she is passing with flying colors. She catered a birthday party of a group of very conservative ex patriots, whom she described as "de las antiguas," or literally, of the old. Their praise for the patacones, (a kind of plantain pancake served with a variety of toppings), tamales and other food from the mother country was anything but conservative. Ortiz says, smiling, that it was the ajiaco that put them over the edge.
Ajiaco, a Colombian chicken soup with corn and three kinds of potatoes, is of the utmost simplicity, but also has a flavor that is rarely reproduced outside of Bogota. The soup is flavored with guascas, an Andean herb that scents the stocks of Colombia while we discard it as a weed with a fancy name (Gallant Soldier) here in the States. Ortiz can't pin down the flavor of guascas, only calling it "extremely different," though I've heard it likened to boiled peanuts. Intriguing, no matter what, and certainly a way to switch up your soup.
Ortiz is looking forward to the future, currently focusing on what revamping Maite Catering really entails and getting particularly excited for the San Francisco Street Food Festival. She is looking for opportunities to do dinner pop ups, hoping to maintain the ambiente or atmosphere she found at El Rio while also expanding to a sit down dinner environment. She recently did a tequila menu pairing at Tres Agaves -- "Who cares that we don't drink tequila in Colombia?" she says. "The food was all Colombian and people loved it."