Let's be real, it's pretty hard to get real Cuban food in this town. However, nestled in the heart of North Philadelphia, Tierra Colombiana dishes out authentic Cuban food like none other.
Simply put, Tierra Colombiana is all about Latino comfort food. On a Sunday afternoon, kids hastily run in between aisles into the arms of eagerly waiting grandparents, while waitresses whirl around customers with trays piled high with steaming entr‚es. Straight from the press, the kitchen serves up freshly squeezed tropical milkshakes ($3) with flavors like guava and tamarind. Although the freshly-made pastries weren't part of our particular meal, the toddler squirming in his high chair seemed to approve of the beef patties, as he shoveled them into his mouth with reckless abandon.
Why go to Tierra Colombiana rather than the Hollywood-Cuban places of Center City? For the exact reason why the entire neighborhood comes: what are served here are the staples of Cuban food, unadulterated by broccoli rabe or "confetti tomato salad." Case in point: the black bean soup. It only comes in two sizes, large ($3) and extra-large ($5). A heaping and hearty stew of black beans arrives, and is refreshingly minimalist compared to Mr. Starr's creations. The dollop of sour cream on the side mixes warm with cold, heavily seasoned with mild, and everything comes together in a creamy mixture.
Maybe one of the best parts of eating at Tierra Colombiana is how unapologetic the kitchen is towards portions, or nutrition in general. The mofongo ($6.50), a traditional Cuban dish of twice-fried plantains with pork crispins, comes with a bowl of pure garlic butter for dipping. Artery-clogging, sure, but the butter melts into the crispy goodness of plantain and pork skin, thus elevating "guilty pleasure" to a whole new level.
What all you real foodies out there have been missing in Center City, though, is an authentic Cuban sandwich ($5.50). It's hard to get this pillar of Cuban cuisine, since it's so damn hard to get a press that'll actually do them up right. A Cuban sandwich entails of crusty bread rubbed with garlic and then layered with ham, roast pork, mustard and dill pickles. Simplicity is king, and until you check out Tierra Colombiana's version, you haven't really eaten straight up Cuban food in Philly.
On a whim, we tried a Colombian dish that seemed to be pretty popular. Topped with two fried eggs on top of round steak, an arepa (corn patty), and avocado, the bandeja tipica colombiana ($11.50) was a bit of a hodgepodge. You wouldn't think that a corn patty would have anything to do with an avocado, but that's the beauty of it: there are tons of things that probably shouldn't go together, but centuries of Cuban chefs laboring behind grills can't really be wrong.
To be completely honest, only the die-hard Cuban fan should check out Tierra Colombiana. For one it's pretty hard to get to. That being said, the restaurant dishes out probably the most genuine Cuban food in the entire city. What it lacks in flair it makes up in honest, good food that really can't be matched by many restaurants in West Philadelphia or Center City. Sipping on a bebida and watching generations of neighborhood residents eat real Cuban together almost make you think you're in Havana, and not North Philadelphia. Almost.