When I ask a diplomat friend — a crisis-management guy who spent a few years representing U.S. interests in Bogotá — where I should dine in Colombia, his first response is Andrés Carne de Res, a restaurant as famous for its stellar empanadas as its all-night, alcohol-fueled benders.
When I tell the co-owner of a hip New York food empire that I’m going to Bogotá, a city with no shortage of cutting-edge restaurants, he immediately asks whether I’ll be dining at Andrés Carne de Res.
When I ask a pastry chef at one of New York’s best Mexican restaurants what I should do in Colombia, her first suggestion is not a long tasting-menu spot like Leo (that was second), but rather, Andrés Carne de Res. I should specifically visit, she DMs, for “arepas and dancing.”
So at 3:45 p.m. on a Saturday, I step out of my hotel and into a station wagon with three companions — and four good dogs — to drive to Chía, a suburb 45 minutes north of Bogotá. The destination is Andrés Carne de Res.
Founded by Andrés Jaramillo as a roadside grill spot in 1982, it is now ... a lot more. And by a lot, I mean there are 500 staffers; a supervised children’s zone; at least three dance floors (turns out it’s five); an employee cafeteria bigger than a mid-sized Texas barbecue restaurant; a roughly 25-foot rock-climbing wall that could get dangerous after a few drinks; a coal-fired kitchen with about as much square footage as a Boeing 747; a DJ booth with 17,000 compact discs (they occasionally use Spotify); roving bands of performers equipped with confetti; a separate outdoor kitchen for late-night hangover soup; a doggy day care center; a stand where one can hire designated drivers; a menu that includes every major dish of Colombia; a bowl of free strawberries near the entrance; and a collection of no fewer than six hammocks near the parking lot.
Why the hammocks?
“So drunk patrons can pass out and sleep it off,” my photographer tells me. There you go, it’s also an outdoor motel.
At 4:55 p.m., we drop off the dogs at the Parque Paraíso Perruno.
At 5 p.m., we enter the 2.76-square-mile restaurant, which can accommodate 3,300 humans. We are slated to spend the next nine hours there.
I’ll be honest, this is not my type of restaurant.
At 5:20 p.m., I’m sitting on a wooden bench, next to a motorized bicycle wheel that’s spinning on the wall, eating an arepa de choclo. Also known as a cachapa, it’s a round yellow pancake with the sugar level of breakfast cereal and a consistency only slightly denser than Jell-O. A few minutes later, a waiter ferries over an arepa de maíz — a corn-flour arepa — topped with fresh cheese; it packs the toasty and forthright aroma of good popcorn. And a few minutes later I’m working on a torreja de maíz. It is sweeter than the previous two, and pulls apart like a moist fruitcake.
At 5:30 p.m., during a two-minute walk to the restroom, the main dance floor is sparsely populated with families and children.
There is no universal food-writing algorithm that specifies where an out-of-towner should dine during a short trip. Typically, however, the formula works like this: You send a visitor to a few places that constitute what a city does best — and what they can’t find back home. In New York, that might mean an old steakhouse, a classic Sichuan spot, and maybe a modern Korean hangout. But no matter the city, you would never, ever, ever, recommend a clubstaurant — one of those mammoth venues with a doorman, questionable food, a DJ you’ve never heard of, vodka-Red Bulls, bottle service, an epic line to get in, and a more epic line for coat check.
The formula is different when visiting Bogotá. Here, you’re sent to Carne de Res, where the menu offers meat, Red Bull, and Monster Energy — a clubstaurant.
As a critic, I have a long record of taking down North American clubstaurants, venues known for filtering diverse cultures through the monochromatic lens of a well-financed collegiate tour abroad. Take Tao, which interprets East Asia, replete with myriad cultures, languages, and cuisines, as a nonstop anglophone bacchanalia with crappy sushi rolls. Or consider Señor Frog’s, where the alcohol-sodden spring break-in-Cancún experience is the backdrop for burrito bowls and mole made from the chain’s “original family recipe.”
So what makes Carne de Res different? The fact that it doesn’t water down or stereotype another culture, but rather, acts as a grade-A diplomat for its own. And like so many great restaurants, its environs are a fictional, whimsical, there-is-nowhere-else-like-this piece of storytelling. Only here, that storytelling is spread out over 11 dining rooms and three buildings separated by two streets, with many of those spaces filled with tuba players and costumed dancers, all performing underneath polychromatic Christmas lights and heart-shaped lanterns. Latin America’s 50 Best List describes the restaurant as “Alice-in-Wonderland meets Moulin Rouge.” I’d say the aesthetic recalls a Belle Epoque Metro station in Paris, interpreted by someone who spent too much time dropping acid while watching a bad (or good?) steampunk classic. If I had to pick a theme, I’d say — pardon the tautology — that it’s all very Andrés.
At 8:20 p.m., a waiter relocates our group to a different table. The area we’re moved from will soon become a dance floor as densely populated as a mosh pit. We continue eating as the revelry amps up. This brings up another factor that makes Carne de Res so compelling: It serves absolutely fantastic Colombian food in all its traditional, meaty, starchy, fatty, fresh-pressed-juice glory.
By 8:45 p.m., I don’t see a single patron drinking Red Bull. I’m drinking something slightly more soporific: ajiaco, a hot, starchy blend of chicken and potato broth served in an earthenware bowl. When the richness starts to overwhelm, I toss in a few giant capers to add a wallop of sour brininess. Just as good is the cuchuco de trigo, the famous wheat-and-bean soup of the Colombian altiplano. It is clear and nourishing. It is studded with soft beans. It causes one’s lips to stick together for just a moment, thanks to a mound of wonderfully gelatinous pork rump.
There are at least 17 other soups.
Modern Bogotá menus are not entirely dissimilar from their counterparts in Paris or New York or any other global city. Young chefs, some of them recently returned from abroad, like to serve tight collections of share plates, often combining international sensibilities with local ingredients. And burrata. Burrata is everywhere.
Carne de Res serves the opposite of a tight menu. There is a general, though not scientific, agreement among Stateside hyperbole artists that the Cheesecake Factory has the world’s longest menu. They are wrong. The menu at Carne de Res, at 76 pages, is almost twice as long, with 16 ceviches; 17 different cheese plates; 20 types of plantains; a collection of offal (crispy beef intestines, sweetbreads, kidneys); a dessert list longer than some restaurant menus; a selection of rum, tequila, and spirits that would put most small liquor stores to shame; and a variety of tobacco products, including Marlboro Reds, old-fashioned snuff, and Lucky Strike cigarettes flavored with the aroma of either a daiquiri or a mojito.
One could spend years working through the food offerings here, but my four hours of grazing resulted in the following general theory: The kitchen, led by Marco Antonio Beltrán Rodríguez, has few weak spots.
I watch as Beltrán Rodríguez retrieves a large cloth sachet from the coals. He cuts it open with scissors to reveal a beef tenderloin crusted in a mass of salt equal to its own weight. Beltrán Rodríguez is dressed in a blue apron and seems as unstressed as the other 70 or so cooks, who are barely breaking a sweat despite the presence of at least 500 guests. It is a pure expression of clean beef and sweet oregano. It pairs well with a giant green plantain, smashed to the diameter of a small Frisbee.
I could go on: There’s a $100 tomahawk beef chop, as average as any $150 tomahawk chop being hawked in New York; a spicy shrimp ceviche that’s a fine balance of citrus and incendiary, tomato-laced sauce; little bites of pork belly fried to the texture of jerky; and crispy potato-stuffed corn empanadas that, when combined with green chile sauce, make it a serious competitor to the New York knish.
Frank Bruni, in his four-star review of Thomas Keller’s Per Se in 2004, wrote of marble potatoes that “popped like grapes” in his mouth. I have dreamt of such tubers in the decade and a half since, but have not tasted anything close to that description until Carne de Res, where, instead of coming as part of a $300 tasting menu, they arrive in a basket covered in salt. The fried whole potatoes, called papas criollas, are delicate and snackable enough to replace popcorn at a movie theater.
Dessert is a meringue cake filled with fresh guanábana cream. It was fragrant as my bowl of lulo juice, an Andean nightshade that tastes like a dry-aged creamsicle. Both provide the sugar necessary to carry my crew through the next five hours.
At 8:59 p.m., Andrés Jaramillo, the owner, steps up to a microphone, and says, in the voice of a high school principal who has maybe had a few drinks but has not lost his authority, that it is time for the children to go home. He is not joking.
At 10:22 p.m., a three-piece band and two dancers serenade me and gift me a beauty pageant sash in the colors of the Colombian flag.
At 10:47 p.m., people are actively drinking beer and cocktails on the street that separates one half of Carne de Res from another. I’m sitting next to Jaramillo, who’s wearing a white-linen shirt and a Patek Philippe watch, probably worth enough to pay off all my student loans. A server brings him a single cigarette, which he lights using a box of matches with his own caricature printed on the front.
At 11 p.m., enough people have occupied the street to effectively prohibit vehicular traffic from passing through.
At 11:03 p.m., the DJ drops the bass.
At 11:17 p.m., at least 100 folks have lined up to gain entry to the restaurant. They wait under luminescent windmills.
At 11:40 p.m., patrons are roaming the compound with full bottles of aguardiente; many are pouring shots for strangers. At Carne de Res, drinking overtakes eating in the after-hours (one cannot dance with potato soup), and an evening can end with you asleep on a hammock.
The altitude contributes to the degradation of one’s decision-making. In Chía, at 8,412 feet, the air contains 26 percent less oxygen than at sea level. For some, two drinks will feel like three, a sensation that might not kick in until your fourth, which means you’re in trouble.
Most people recommend drinking fewer cocktails and more water at high altitudes. On an evening at Carne de Res, you will do the opposite. A companion orders me the Mandarino Smirnoff, a blend of freshly squeezed mandarin juice, ice, and vodka. Don’t call it a screwdriver — the drink boasts a complex citrus fragrance, a gentle sweetness, a whisper of acidity, and a boozy sting that’s impressively subtle, given that it contains five ounces of vodka. Aguardiente, with its fiery finish, is the safer pacing mechanism. My companions pour it for me, and themselves, often, until the small flask is depleted. Then they order another. And another.
Then, at 12:15 a.m., they advise that it’s time for dancing.
Because Jaramillo has ordered minors home, one could imagine the restaurant devolving into a sweaty den of booze-addled debauchery, bumping and grinding, shouting, fighting, smooching, and vaping. But Carne de Res is fairly tame by club standards. The last time I was in a New York club a guy almost punched me after I accidentally poured a vodka tonic from his bottle of Belvedere (the monetary equivalent of siphoning half a tank of gasoline). Here, I barely had to say “excuse me” to cut through the crowds to use the restroom, which is filled with photos of semi-naked or naked women above the urinals.
At 1 a.m., we leave. This process takes approximately 20 minutes. One companion negotiates the designated driver. Another collects the dogs. No one is in the hammocks yet. I buy a ticket for two orders of beef-rib soup — the hangover beverage of choice here — and spot an abandoned can of Monster, the only energy drink I encounter that evening.
At 1:10 a.m., I take a seat on an outdoor bench and start sipping the short rib soup. The line for soup tickets is now at least 15 people long. Two women ladle the elixir, which will hopefully slow the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, into hundreds of metal cups lining the counter. The soup is hot and beefy — nothing more, nothing less. I take a piece of short rib and feed it to one of the dogs, named Clapton.
At approximately 1:20 a.m., nearly nine hours after having arrived at Andrés Carne de Res, I step into a car with a hired designated driver, the same three companions I arrived with, and, to the best of my knowledge, the same four dogs that we left at the park. By most international going-out standards, leaving with the same people you came with, at the same time, is as rare as winning the lottery.
Clapton, the aforementioned dog, puts his paw on my foot during the car ride home.
At 2:15 a.m., I step out of the car and walk back into my hotel. I remain in bed for as long as I remained at Carne de Res, the only good clubstaurant in the world.
Like I said in the beginning, this is really my type of restaurant.
Andrés Carne de Res, Calle 3, # 11A-56, Chía