Colombian on Ionia

Pochis Colombian Cafe
A plate of authentic Colombian cuisine at Pochis Sweet Desgns, 44 Ionia Ave. SW, Grand Rapids. Photo by Amanda Kampinen.

Paola Carlson isn’t planning to slow down any time soon. In fact, she plans to take Colombian culture to the streets of Grand Rapids on Saturday, July 22, noon-10 p.m., with Colombian on Ionia, a festival that will feature food, music, art and performances from her homeland. (Colombian Independence Day is July 20.)

“Everybody thinks the only Latino people here in Grand Rapids are Mexican,” she laughed. “We want to bring something new.”

Since she arrived in Grand Rapids from Bogotá, Colombia, six years ago, Paola Carlson hasn’t slowed down. Her entrepreneurial spirit has taken her from selling decorated bottles at art fairs to importing Pochis Sweet Designs (her own line of sweet treats) for distribution by the Meijer retail chain — and now, she’s opened her own brick-and-mortar shop that offers a yummy taste of her home country.

Paola “Pochis” Carlson. Photo by Amanda Kamppinen.

Look for the pink awning on Ionia Avenue: Pochis Colombian Cafe, 44 Ionia Avenue SW, has the look of a candy box, which complements the store’s line of chocolate-dipped strawberries, bouquets, espresso drinks and beautifully decorated pastries. But those items are only the half of it. Pochis also offers a growing menu of authentic Colombian dishes for here or to go.

Carlson (whose family nickname is “Pochis,” in case you were wondering) said her Colombian menu was a command performance from customers. “My first idea was to start the coffee shop and maybe sell bouquets, but people asked, ‘Where is the food from Colombia?’ So now we’re an official restaurant!”

When Paola says her menu is authentically Colombian, she means it: “Every item we use for cooking, we bring from Chicago or Miami — here, there’s no place that sells Colombian ingredients. And the flour for our arepas, we source all the way from Colombia!”

Come hungry!
At the heart of Pochis’ menu are Colombia’s most-loved dishes — starting with hot dogs, which are as popular in Colombia as they are in the United States. Colombian hot dogs are served piled high with novel ingredients: Pochis offers a classic Colombian combo (melted mozzarella and sautéed onion); a Hawaiian hot dog (adding ham and pineapple, of course); an “All Terrain Hot Dog” that piles shredded chicken and beef, as well as bacon, on top of the cheese and onion; and the house hot dog, which features shredded pork, sautéed mushrooms — and a tiny hard-boiled quail egg. These aren’t your mom’s hot dogs — and served with chips, any one of them makes a meal.

More Pochis favorites, all made to order from scratch:

Pochis Sweet Designs’ empanadas. Photo by Amanda Kamppinen.

Empanadas. While Mexican empanadas are made with wheat flour, Colombian empanadas are made with corn flour fried crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Pochis fills them with an assortment of savory ingredients: shredded chicken, shredded or ground beef, mushrooms, boiled egg, potatoes, corn, even pineapple and ham. (Our tip: Try the chicken-mushroom empanada.)

Arepas build up from a thick cornmeal pancake piled high with meats, vegetables and cheese. Check out the Pochis Arepa with your choice of meat, plus sausage, tomato, onion, corn, mozzarella and a quail egg. (Or if you like your eggs bigger than a quarter, try an arepa with a whole fried chicken egg.)

Salchipapas combine the Spanish words salchi (sausage) and papa (potato). As the name implies, Pochis’ salchipapas match up French fries and fried beef hot dogs with cheese and Pochis’ special sweet-and-savory sauce. Go all in with the Salchitodisimo, which layers on shredded beef, sautéed mushrooms, sweet corn, chopped smoked bacon and eggs.

In place of cornmeal or a hotdog bun, patacones start with a crispy fried green plantain stacked with ingredients. Check out the Creole Patacon, which pairs shredded beef and chopped Colombian chorizo topped with cheese.

Pochis obviously isn’t the place for calorie-counting.

Owner Carlson said her menu just keeps growing, thanks to requests from Colombian-Americans from Detroit, Lansing and Chicago who’ve made Pochis a must-stop when they travel. (“Every weekend, I meet new people from Colombia,” she said.)

Pochis now features big Colombian tamales wrapped in plantain leaves and stuffed with a farm’s worth of meats and veggies; a whole fried fish direct from Colombia; and bandeja paisa (a rice-and-beans platter with ground meat, pork rinds, sausage, fried eggs and plantain). Every weekend, there’s a special item. (When I visited, Colombian chicken rice was on the menu.)

If, after all that, you still have room for a side dish, I recommend the pandebono, a savory cheese bread made with cassava flour.

And to seal the deal with a dessert to match the scale of Pochis’ entrées, try the obleas colombianas, a luscious concoction of wafers, caramel spread, mozzarella (!), strawberry jelly and whipped cream. (Whew!)

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