PITTSFIELD -- Upon entering La Fogata Restaurant, you might be surprised to notice a few wooden shelves to your right containing South American grocery items like beans, cornmeal, mole sauce, corn soda and guava candy.
These are not foods that you normally see in grocery stores in the Berkshires. And that's exactly why owner Miguel Gomez makes bi-weekly trips to New York City markets to buy ingredients and stock his shelves.
"When I came here [from Colombia]," Gomez explained, "I couldn't find my food. I couldn't even find my ingredients." He moved to Pittsfield from Colombia in 1993 and found that there were no Latino restaurants in the area. His family sent him recipes, but there weren't even any local markets that carried the ingredients for Colombian food, so he had to get supplies from New York.
"I learned a lot about my mom's homestyle cooking," said Gomez, who began cooking traditional Colombian food from the recipes his family sent. Eventually, he realized that the lack of a local Latino restaurant was a need waiting to be filled. Gomez has a background in restaurants, and he worked at Guido's for 11 years. Before that, he was working with food in Colombia.
"My family had a butcher shop," he said, "and my whole family worked there, so I know the cuts of meat and how they cook. There were no Latino restaurants, and I thought we needed one around here. People seem to agree."
La Fogata (Spanish for "the bonfire") offers traditional Colombian cuisine.
"My first customers were mostly from the Latino community," says Gomez, "but now I get lots of Americans, Asians, everyone. The soups are very popular in winter, and people like the platters year-round."
Eight tables line the left wall, with enough space between them that nothing feels cramped. A tall divider separates the dining section from the kitchen against the opposite wall. The few shelves of grocery items are right up front, so one could theoretically stop by just to purchase ingredients and not have a meal, but it would be tricky with the delicious smells wafting over the counter.
The lunch specials are very reasonably priced, from $5-$9. The Plato Tipico lunch special ($9) contains all the essentials for appreciating Colombian food. The grilled steak looked impossibly large, but the cut was very thin so it was the perfect amount of food. The steak had just enough spice to accentuate the natural flavors but nothing so heavy as to overpower. The large portions of beans and rice were very flavorful, and the avocado and fried egg served as pleasant garnishes. Plus, a few of the items on the typical platter will be unfamiliar to most diners.
The sweet plantain is a long, sticky half of plantain cut lengthwise, tasting similar to but better than a banana. The corn pattie is made of white corn and, while slightly dry alone, went perfectly with the steak. The real treat, however, was the pork rind.
When one sees the words "pork rind" in America, the first thing that comes to mind may be the mostly tasteless deep-fried pork rinds that come in large bags in the snack section of the supermarket. La Fogata's pork rind could not be more different. A small pork rind on the plate offers a finger-length strip of rind with a few thumb-width nubs of pork heaven. The shell of the nubs is crispy and salty and is probably what bacon aspires to be when it grows up. The inside is tender pork. Suffice to say, it would be a mistake to order a meal without sampling this delicacy.
The Grilled Chicken with Rice and Beans lunch special ($8) offers the standard rice and beans, as well as a delicious thin cut of chicken prepared the same way as the steak. The flavorful cut is perhaps more surprising in chicken than it is in steak but no less appreciated. If you happen to be dining with a companion, you may want to split the Picada La Fogata ($25), a generous plate of five kinds of meat: beef, pork, short ribs, sausage and the requisite pork rind.
All entrees are served with a delicious green cilantro sauce, although you should resist the temptation to douse all your meat in sauce before trying it in its natural form. A variety of South American beverages are available, from Colombian beer to Peruvian Inca Kola, a golden soda that tastes nothing like cola. In the unlikely event that you have room left for dessert, tres leches cake or chilled flan ($4) is a nice cap on the meal.
If you are too full, you can buy a flan to take home. If you are too far from your fridge, you can always buy the ingredients from the grocery shelves to make your own Colombian dessert.
"All my food is fresh," says Gomez. "If people come, I'm sure they will like my food."
If you go ...
What: La Fogata Restaurante
Where: 70 Tyler St., Pittsfield.
Accessibility: Fully accessible
Hours: Sun-Thurs 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m., closed Mondays
Liquor: Beers from South America
Sound: Generally quiet, with Colombian music in background
Credit cards: All major
Specials: Whole Colombian Roast Pig available for special occasions
Information: (413) 443-6969.