No wonder Hernan Caro felt at home when the Cartagena native moved to New Orleans 20 years ago. He'll tell you that beyond the atmosphere of the two cities' Spanish colonial-era old towns, he felt an affinity with the local preoccupation with food and even some of its flavors.
At Baru Caf, which he opened in June under the airport's flight path in Kenner, Caro serves a blend of some familiar standards done with Colombian touches -- like steak, red beans and rice and pork chops -- and more exotic numbers that don't often turn up in these parts. Green plantains -- pounded flat and formed into crispy, starchy disks called patacones -- and fried yucca play supporting roles in many of the dishes, while a roster of unfamiliar spices, cheeses and offbeat combinations of ingredients give the food an exciting edge.
Baru Caf is a family-run place that is casual without being slack. The small, nine-table restaurant is attractively designed in a way that suggests a beachfront cafe without parodying it. Much of the wrought iron dcor is the work of Caro himself, who is also a professional metal craftsman. Entre prices average $15 and a BYOB policy for alcohol helps keep bills low.
Front and center on the menu is an appetizer called mazorca, a Colombian mainstay that doesn't leave home much. Something between a dip and a casserole, it starts with corn kernels grilled to the smoky verge of being burnt then mixed with cool, creamy sauce and crunchy fried matchstick potatoes and fried plantain chips. Guacabello is more of a house creation, a hot salad of grilled avocado and Portobello mushrooms chopped into chunks and tossed together with lime juice for an irresistible blend of flavors. Carminolas are dumpling-sized footballs of mashed yucca -- fluffy as biscuit dough -- that are fried to a crisp crust and stuffed with ground beef. Strips of fried yucca, cut into short planks like carrot sticks, are a bit dry and very starchy. Accompanying them, however, are delicious sticks of fried salao, a cheese that is sour like feta and has some of the bite of parmesan.
The menu is not strictly Colombian but includes mainstays from other Latin American cuisines, like a Honduran chicken soup (called caldo de pollo) and ropa vieja, the traditional Cuban dish of marinated, shredded beef over rice. A pork roast called lechon Cubano was one of the only disappointing entrees, though it may qualify as comfort food to someone raised on Latin American cooking. The slices of pork were moist and tasty, but the dish just didn't have anything exciting to compare with the better choices here.
The same pork is put to better use in the Cuban sandwich, which has good chunks of the meat instead of the deli slices sometimes encountered elsewhere. The pork is grilled to sizzling with ham and cheese before it all slides into a heavily buttered po-boy loaf, which is then pressed for a molten, meaty and near ideal version of the famous sandwich. Another sandwich, dubbed Karlita's Way, is made on a spinach tortilla that is so gooey it approaches quesadilla status. Inside, grilled shrimp are embedded in melted cheese, salsa and avocado. The sandwiches are served for lunch and dinner.
The fish of the day is usually tilapia seasoned to a rusty red with achiote, a powdered spice that looks and tastes like a mild paprika. The large fillet is pan-seared and comes off slightly sweet and juicy.
Cartegena may be a port city, but meat is clearly the specialty at Baru Caf. The grilled rib-eye is seasoned simply with a rub of salt and pepper but served with chimichurri, the addictive forest green sauce of parsley, garlic and olive oil. Chuleta, a Colombian version of scallopini, has pork chops encased in a very light batter and covered in a creamy sauce studded with chunks of grilled Portobello mushroom. The skirt steak may be one of the best $12 steaks around. The thin but generously cut portion is certainly your money's worth of meat, and it has been so thoroughly marinated and seasoned that each piece is lip-smacking with pleasing chewiness. A velvety pile of marinated sweet red onion on top adds a delectable, vinegar-tinged bite.
The house sampler plate is basically a mixed grill balancing on a surfboard-shaped patacon. Carefully presented on this edible platform are slices of steak, shredded chicken and chopped chorizo sausage all covered with a snowcap of grated salao cheese and a side of chimichurri.
Red beans are a side dish for a few of the entrees. These will likely taste underseasoned to a New Orleans palate but this more austere Colombian version pairs very well with the accompanying hill of coconut rice without drowning its aromatic flavor.
For dessert, the tres leches cake is so moist it tastes as though there must be more than three milk products juicing it up. The coffee flan has a somewhat gummy mouth feel but is it subtly sweet and proves a fine way of having your coffee and eating it too. Though there is no bar, Baru Café serves interesting non-alcoholic tropical drinks, like a sweet iced tea with pineapple, lime juice and brown sugar or "chica de pina," a coarsely blended smoothie of strawberry, pineapple and honey.