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Ape over arepas

Appetite

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Be yourself, but be different.

That could be the motto of Café Corto on the eve of its first anniversary, as the family outfit plays to its cultural and culinary strengths to distinguish itself from the multitude of other coffee shops locally. What it delivers beyond the usual caffeinated suspects is a handful of foodstuffs new to town, and perhaps entirely new to Springs eaters.

It begins with a simple cornmeal disc roughly the size and thickness of a wide hamburger patty. The arepa is a Colombian and Venezuelan staple (bearing other Central American iterations such as El Salvador's pupusa) dating back to indigenous peoples of the areas. Each family has its own recipe, says Corto co-owner Benjamin Gallegos-Pardo, a 26-year-old of both Colombian and Spanish heritage who serves yellow corn and slightly milder white corn renditions.

Before being formed into patties and pan-seared in butter, his dough starts with the processed cornmeal (widely available in Latino markets by Goya Foods) mixed with mozzarella cheese, milk, salt and white sugar. Each element is evident in the final product, which is semisweet from the natural and added sugars and rich and filling in a savory way from the dairy. (It's also gluten-free.)

Two with a beautifully balanced café con leche, as the El Colombiano breakfast plate ($5.50), will hold off hunger until mid-day. Or, one halved laterally and stuffed with avocado slices, a fried egg and shredded chicken thighs slow-roasted in caldo de tomate (chicken/tomato bouillon), cilantro and onion will be an arepa de pollo ($7) lunch. It comes with a side of salty-sweet baked plantains and a jicama, mandarin orange and pineapple salad spiked with cinnamon and cilantro. Fresh crunch, tropical essence, hearty fat, seductive spice and sweet corn charm — beat that.

There's also a vegetarian arepa fresca plate ($7.75). And spirits lift when you see one of the corncakes cut vertically into tall, charred columns emerging from the side of an ajiaco bowl ($6) — actually ajiaco Bogotano (as in, Bogota-style), a soul-soothing, hearty soup commonly featured as a cool-weather daily special.

To a chicken caldo base, three potato varieties are added: red, gold and Colombian papas criollas — small yellow tubers that bleed some of that color into the final soup, which is thickened and made mightier by crema Mexicana (a crème fraîche-like blend of half-and-half and sour cream). In go scallions and cilantro for flavor, plus a little guasca, a potato weed from the daisy family, which lends something of an astringent bitterness. Then more crema and cilantro for garnish with avocado slices, capers and a corn-on-the-cob segment half-submerged, plus a ramekin of aji, a mildly spicy optional sauce additive consisting of red pepper flakes, bell peppers, onions, garlic and cilantro puréed with vinegar and olive oil.

When a photo of that hits Facebook, Corto's phone starts ringing, fans making sure there's still some left before they venture in.

The Latin touches don't stop there. The panini-like bocadillos (all $7) include a great Cuban sandwich with moist, slow-roasted pork marinated in a house mojo that's cumin-forward and zesty from lime and orange juices.

On the sweets side, Nana's Bakery on Platte Avenue supplies cookies ($2), a stellar tres leches cake ($3) and doughy empanadas ($2) — the pumpkin version of the latter tastes similar to a pie filling, with big baking-spice notes. Three types of flan are made in-house ($3, unavailable on my visits) and of course, the strong house blend, handled by local small-batch micro roaster Spanish Peaks Coffee, combining beans from Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil and Panama.

For coffee enthusiasts, pour-overs, a French press and the syringe-like, acidity-lowering AeroPress are all sit-down options ($2.75). The Maté Factor's maté meets coconut milk and honey in a mate latte ($3, 16-ounce), which is mid-range sweet unless ordered otherwise. And the CocoLoco ($4.30, 16-ounce) is mocha-sweet with chocolate and coconut and a big coffee back.

Gallegos-Pardo, whose mom Rebecca and wife Kat co-own and co-run the space, says Colombians don't tend to drink the sweeter concoctions, saving their sugar splurges for snacks like guava paste on cheese. Guava does show up here as one of the smoothie ($4.50 to $5) flavors, which come in the form of a concentrate from international distributor Big Train. Silk coconut milk makes a nice base, but the mix is overly sweet for my taste, like candy more than a real-fruit shake.

For gringos looking to tread familiar ground, there's the very basic breakfast platter ($7.65) of eggs, bacon and toast, but also livelier, lovelier offerings like the Benny & the Jets Bocadillo of prosciutto and salami layered with veggies under a pesto cream cheese. And likeable lettuce wraps ($6) such as the Power Wrap of avocado, chicken and feta with tomato relish, feta crumbles and Craisins.

Special family-style dinners, such as weekend paella nights, may start when a liquor license is procured around the new year, and Gallegos-Pardo also mentions adding Filipino specials like chicken adobo to honor Kat's lineage.

All will be welcome in the space whose art-touches extend beyond local artists' paintings to a partly mosaicked doorway and large illustrated panels comprising part of the drop ceiling. Though Corto stands separate with the Colombian food flair, it's ultimately as visually eclectic and quirky as any coffee stop, creating a comfortable sense of the familiar ... just like an arepa, after the third day consecutively that you've ventured in for one, pulled a chewy hunk off, and asked where they've been all your life.

matthew@csindy.com

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