North Philadelphia has a long tradition of South American cooking, with old favorites like Tierra Colombiana on North Fifth Street holding down a big menu of classic pan-Latino favorites, like its signature huge Colombian tamales. But the cheery corner BYOB bruncherie called Usaquén, at Third and Cecil B.Moore, is clearly part of a new generation, as much in tune with Kensington's millennial gentrifiers seeking fun riffs on breakfast burritos (Usaquén has a good one) as the small community of Philly Bogatanos who've come asking for a bowl of ajiaco stew. Owner Mel Tenorio, 36, who was born in the Bogatá neighborhood of Usaquén ("it's artsy like Fishtown") has crafted an affordable menu that speaks to both tradition and novel creations. His sancocho, a soulful beef stew studded Cali-style with yucca and starchy green plantains, is Colombian comfort at its rustic best. You can also crumble salty queso fresco into a milky cup of Colombian hot chocolate, just as the country's savory-sweet tradition dictates.
The most stunning dish we ate in our lunchtime visit, however, was one of Tenorio's fusion innovations, a plate of pancakes whose batter was mixed with plantains, mashed in at two different stages of ripeness for added complexity. Think of the sweetness bananas might offer, but less mushy and less intensely sweet, and with more of an earthy backbone, lending the hotcakes a Caribbean intrigue. To complete the dish and bring its brunch sweetness home, Tenorio makes a syrup from the raw sugar known as panela, and then smears the plate with arequipe, a dense Colombian caramel reminiscent of dulce de leche. Our meal was good enough that Usaquén is on my revisit list, for sure, especially when Tenorio opens for limited weekend dinners some time in the next few weeks. "I'm going to start with some traditional things, like ajiaco," he said, referring to the chicken-potato stew considered to be a Colombian national dish. "But the Bogatanos will have to come back for dinner for that."
– Craig LaBan
Usaquén, $10, 1700 N. Third St. (at Cecil B. Moore Avenue), 215-765-1700; usaquenphilly.com.