Arepas and empanadas served with a twist
On the way to Alameda’s southern shoreline, the Webster Street retail district is slowly waking up. New restaurants on and off of the main strip have continued to open over the past couple of years. In addition to the latest newcomers, Left Field Dogs and Lazybird Coffee, Constanza Ortiz has recently opened Macondo, a Colombian fusion takeout place featuring arepas and empanadas.
For the last decade, Ortiz has been operating Maité Catering. The chef said that her catering business served many of the tech companies in the area. Maité also specialized in Colombian dishes. But after finishing culinary school, Ortiz initially didn’t want to start cooking her native country’s cuisine. “For me, it was regular food that I cook at home,” she said. It was more exciting for her to be making dishes from other countries.
Over time though, Ortiz noticed a change in the perception of Colombian food abroad and her own relationship to it. As a chef, she was looking for and found a way to elevate dishes that were overly familiar to her. The Macondo menu features a cheese arepa—but that’s just a starting point. She points out that her quesabirria arepa and the banh mi arepa were inspired by Mexican and Vietnamese dishes, respectively. They’re not part of traditional Colombian recipes.
The chef is using the arepa, and the empanada, as a vehicle to improvise in the kitchen. The banh mi arepa is filled with brisket, cabbage, red onions, jalapeños and cilantro. Ortiz also makes breakfast arepas with scrambled eggs and heartier ones for dinner with pulled pork, vegetables or beans and plantains.
After Ortiz started Maité Catering, which focuses on small bites, a friend suggested that she should start making arepas. But the chef felt like she needed to do something more with them, to make them stand out. That’s when she started coming up with fusion recipes. Ortiz knew that the concept was taking off when her orders began to skyrocket. Initially, she was making 10 orders a week. Then she started to sell 600 or 700 a week. “I even had weeks where I sold 2,000 arepas,” she said.
Macondo isn’t dedicated to “authentic” Colombian food, she explained. The elements of fusion are what make Ortiz’s food unique. When she came up with the idea for a banh mi arepa, someone told her that it would confuse people. Now, that’s the first arepa to sell out. Because of her atypical approach, Ortiz wasn’t expecting that Colombians would be drawn to her cooking.
But she noticed in a recent post on social media, a customer wrote that she called her mother to tell her Macondo’s food was similar to hers. “That makes me feel so happy,” Ortiz said. “If you can bring memories to someone, I guess it’s because you are doing well.” Recently, the chef was testing out a recipe for pandebono, a cheese bread. Another customer, also from Colombia, tried it and immediately asked to order a dozen of them. “That makes you feel like it tastes like Colombia,” she said.
When I stopped by, I tried a chicken empanada and an arepa filled with mozzarella cheese, Farmers and cotija cheese. I was surprised that both items seemed to be made with variations of, if not the same, then a similar dough. Ortiz’s empanadas aren’t like hand pies. They’re smaller than the ones sold in the Mission. When I scanned the menu, I missed seeing the choclo (also listed as chocolo) arepa, made with sweet corn cakes filled with cheese. I would have liked to taste the difference between them.
Ortiz is a fan of the late Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. Both the name of her shop and the dozens of yellow papery butterflies adorning the walls are taken from his book, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The space on Webster Street isn’t a sit-down restaurant, which hasn’t been one of her goals. She’s still planning to keep her catering business in one form or another. There aren’t any tables inside, but there are a couple of benches set against a wall. While the butterflies form a yellow circle next to the entrance, customers can watch them drifting upward while they’re snacking on arepas served hot off the grill.
Macondo, open Wed to Sun 10am-3pm. 1545 Webster St., Alameda. 510.671.2182. macondocolombianfusion.com.