Medellín is the capital of Antioquia, a region whose cooking is famous across Colombia, but rather more for quantity than for quality: the classic “Paisa” (Antioquian) dish is what’s called a bandeja paisa, a huge plate of pork and beans, with rice, plantain, a fried egg, sausage and often with chicharrón (fried pork belly), salad and other optional extras. It’s hearty and filling, but haute cuisine it ain’t.
Then again, Medellín is a sophisticated modern city, and while they love their traditional Paisa food, people here also enjoy fine dining, be it Asian, European, from elsewhere in Latin America, or modern takes on Paisa staples. So while you can pop into a local diner for a lunchtime set menu and pile on the meat and stodge, you can also eat very well in Medellín, and by and large, it won’t break the bank to do so.
The best restaurants are concentrated in El Poblado, south of the center, but there’s good eating to be had downtown, and also in the up and coming Laureles neighborhood, west of the city center.
El Cielo is Medellín’s top foodie destination and the only restaurant in town that’s dedicated to “molecular gastronomy”, described by chef Juan Manuel Barrientos as the use of scientific methods to create new and exciting tastes.
Really, you need to make a reservation here, but be the first through the door at lunchtime and you should be all right. There are two tasting menus, one consisting of nine “moments”, the other of thirteen, and each “moment” is an amazing gustatory experience, not just delicious, but a total surprise. That’s not to say you won’t be full up at the end of it, but it’s a meal you won’t forget, pricey by Colombian standards, but worth every peso.
- Where: Carrera 40 No. 10A–22, El Poblado
- Contact: (+57 4 268 3002) www.elcielorestaurant.com
Contemporary fusion cuisine in a modern, elegant space, that’s what Carmen is about. The basics are fresh, local ingredients, the twist is the international influence: a bit of Europe, a drop of southeast Asia, and a very large dollop of Latin America. Their version of suckling pig, for example — a Colombian street dish in origin — comes with a cognac-scented jus and a hoisin sauce made from Amazonian wild cassava.
If it’s hard to choose from the outrageously tempting options on offer, you can always hedge your bets and go for the chef’s tasting menu, available in a restrained five-course version or a make-a-meal-of-it nine-course full Monty, each with the bonus of a specially paired wine.
- Where: Carrera 36 No. 10A–27, El Poblado
- Contact: (+57 4 311 9625) www.carmenmedellin.com
Mondogo's is a great place to check out traditional Paisa grub in bright, modern surroundings with very much a local vibe.
The top dish here is the eponymous mondongo, a filling soup made with tripe (stomach of a cow), slow cooked with vegetables. They also do a bandeja paisa (big plate of everything) with absolutely all the trimmings, and it’s so popular that there are frequently queues outside the door, but don’t worry: tag onto at the end, and you’ll be tucking in in no time.
Expect big portions, snappy service, and very moderate prices. And just so as you know, the building it’s located in was once the administrative headquarters of Pablo Escobar’s infamous Medellín Cartel, ancient history now.
- Where: Calle 10 No. 38–38, El Poblado (also at Carrera 70 No. C3–43, Laureles)
- Contact: (+57 4 312 2346) mondongos.com.co
If you're craving food from Southeast Asia, try this excellent Thai restaurant where you can sample the aromas of ginger, chili, lemongrass and Thai basil without having to fly to Bangkok.
The ambience is elegant, in a restrained, Asian kind of way, and starters include a tasty tom yam soup, be it prawn or chicken, followed by a red or green curry, or maybe a pad thai, and rounded off with a banana fritter and ice-cream, or sticky rice with coconut milk and mango.
- Where: Calle 8A No. 37A–05, El Poblado
- Contact: (+57 4 354 2843) royalthaicolombia.com
Slap-bang in the middle of town, Hacienda is a restaurant where they’re proud to serve local dishes, and it shows.
Medellín’s shrine to all that’s best in traditional Paisa fare, it’s the top place in town to get a bandeja paisa. They call their version a bandeja de la Hacienda, and it’s a veritable mountain of food: pork, beans, rice, egg, sausage, plantain, minced beef and avocado.
But if all that’s a bit too much, don’t worry, there are other options, just as traditional, but not quite as copious. An excellent sancocho antioqueño, for example, which is a bowl of soup chock-full with tasty meat, corn, potatoes, plantain and cassava. Either way, you won’t leave hungry. On Friday and Saturday nights, they have live music too.
- Where: Carrera 49 No. 52–98, Centro (plus three other branches in town)
- Contact: (+57 4 448 9030) www.restaurantehacienda.com
Very swanky, very refined, but with a light and airy ambiance, La Provincia is a little bit special. The cuisine here is Mediterranean, the influences French and Italian, but always with a local take, usually in the form of high-quality local ingredients and flavors.
They’re particularly strong on fish, and you can have your fish of the day cooked in half a dozen different ways. There’s also a great range of pasta dishes (their own pasta, obviously), including super-fine “angel hair” vermicelli in squid ink, with squid, scallop and asparagus. And do leave room for dessert – their crême brulée comes with the option of chocolate and hazelnuts, or there’s a wonderful pecan pie with dates.
- Where: Carrera 42 No. 3 Sur–81, El Poblado
- Contact: (+57 4 322 0192) laprovinciarestaurante.com
Visit Hatoviejo for a respite from the hectic city-center streets below, but with a view over them, in a warm and welcoming upstairs space.
The food here is Paisa, with all the traditional staples available, but updated a little bit, and including some great modern options. So yes, you can get a bandeja paisa, as well as ajiaco (hearty Colombian soup), but you can also get some excellent salads, and innovative dishes such as pork in tamarind sauce, or tuna steak in sesame with plantain purée and a jus of agrás (”Caribbean grape”).
- Where: Carrera 47 No. 52–17, Centro (and two more branches)
- Contact: (+57 4 251 2196) hatoviejo.com
Ajiacos y Mondongos
This little place is open lunchtimes only, and it serves just three things, all at the same (pretty low) price. There’s ajiaco (chicken soup with potato and corn), or there’s mondongo (tripe soup), or there’s cazuela (a chowder-like soup, elsewhere usually of seafood, but here made with beans).
This is not a fancy place, but they do what they do, and they do it well. The ajiaco, for example, is made with pulled chicken and three types of potato, with cream on the side to add. The cazuela comes with avocado and chicharrón (fried pork belly), and the mondongo contains not just tripe but also chorizo sausage, with hot sauce and cilantro on the side. Simple but good.
- Where: Calle 8 No. 42–46, El Poblado (also at Carrera 74B No. 39D–06, Laureles)
- Contact: (+57 4 312 2520) www.facebook.com/ajiacosymondongos
Colombia doesn’t have the same tradition of Arabic catering as neighboring Brazil, so although there are a few places offering what passes as Middle Eastern food, it isn’t every day you find a restaurant that serves proper Lebanese mezze, made as it should be.
All the more reason then to come here to Hummus, where the hummus has just the right amount of sesame and garlic, and where the eggplants in the babaghanouj (eggplant dip) are cooked on an open flame to give it that slightly burnt taste. The meats are just right, the kibbe fresh-fried, the tabbouleh salad a perfect blend of parsley and bulgur wheat. And you have a choice of indoor or al fresco dining.
- Where: Calle 6 No. 43C–12, El Poblado
- Contact: (+57 4 311 2656) hummus.com.co
Tucked away in the backstreets of Laureles is Medellín’s best steakhouse. With an Argentine flag outside, you don’t need to guess which country’s cuisine gets served here.
The house specialty is a tender New York steak, also known in English as a New York strip, and you’ll probably want this rather than the chewier entraña (skirt steak), which they bill as “the most famous Argentine cut”. Actually, the most famous Argentine cut is the rather less pricey bife chorizo (sirloin strip), and the favorite Colombian cuts are “baby beef” (heart of rump) and punta de anca (sirloin cap).
Whichever you choose, it’ll come with fries and an unlimited salad bar, and you’ll probably want a full-bodied Argentine red to go with it.
- Where: Carrera 75 No. 40–10, Laureles (also at Via Las Palmas, km 2, Las Palmas)
- Contact: (+57 4 366 7304) www.lapampa.co/parrilla