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"No Reservations" season 4, episode 12: Colombia
Episode Rating: Four bloody meat cleavers (out of five) in keeping with last week's rating system.
Summary: Cocaine. Violence. Political instability. These are the unfortunate but typical words that are associated with Colombia, South America's northern-most state. For many years the country suffered under the weight of rival drug cartels, fueled by an insatiable demand for their chief "pulse-raising" product in the United States and beyond. It is these very depictions that Tony comes armed to confront upon arriving in Colombia. Within the episode's first five minutes Bourdain has already pronounced his visit to Colombia as an unexpected delight. Colombia is literally a country-transformed and with killer food to boot.
Tony wastes little time diving into the country's cuisine. He meets up with restaurant owner Jorge in Cartagena, a city on the country's Caribbean coast. After sampling some delicious ceviche at Jorge's restaurant, the pair take a trip to Cartagena's central market to shop for some fish. Mr. Bourdain looks like a kid in a candy store as he conducts taste tests on all manner of exotic produce - five types of mangoes, strange orange-lime hybrids, pretty much anything fruity and delicious is available and there for the tasting.
To top it off, Tony enjoys a hearty local dish consisting of seafood rice, chicken, fish and turtle eggs, the local delicacy. Ashamed that you're eating an endangered species Tony? Although our host gives the ethics of turtle egg-eating momentary pause, the egg is already well on its way down his digestive tract before the issue comes up. All of you just promise you won't try any turtle eggs if you decide to visit Colombia, cool?
Soon we are transported to Bocagrande, one of Cartagena's flashiest neighborhoods, where Tony boards a small water taxi for a trip to a small fishing island just across the bay. The rustic island stands in stark contrast to the flashy mainland high rises, and Bourdain takes the opportunity to enjoy a laid-back lunch with a local free-diver, who catches him a Caribbean lobster for lunch. Throw the words fresh, lobster and rustic island together and you don't need to add much else - the story basically tells itself. It was almost tortuous to watch him eat it all and not get a taste.
The next and final stop on Tony's Colombian odyssey is Medellín, the second-largest city in Colombia and one of its most notorious. The crew visits Queareparaenamorarte (try pronouncing that one), a restaurant that serves traditional Colombian cooking from across the country. Tony gorges himself on a mouth-watering array of foods - a plate of chorizo, rice soup with meat, avocado and plantains, flank steak and tamales de tilapia prepared with coconut, plantains and passion fruit sauce. All the while he's downing shots of aguardiente, the local Colombian rum, with his hosts. C'mon did you really think we could have an episode of No Reservations without Tony getting drunk?
And we're just getting started. In a show renowned for its gluttony, Tony's Medellín visit turns into one of the most gluttonous we've probably ever witnessed. Bourdain has breakfast at the "How Yummy" restaurant at the Plaza Minorista market in Medellín. After an appetizer of empanadas, he dines on Calentao, a typical breakfast plate of leftover rice, beans, fried eggs, fried plantains, an arepa covered in cheese AND meat. In what has to be the line of the episode, Tony decides that Calentao "makes the Grand Slam at Denny's look like a carrot stick." Heart attack anyone?
Clearly not yet full from his gigantic breakfast, Tony has an even bigger lunch, consisting of a plate with beans, salad, rice, fried eggs, pulled pork, an arepa, chorizo and chicharron. Good god man, please make it stop. It's almost painful to watch a human being eat this much food. But then again, it is a cooking and eating show - who am I to judge?
Tony wraps up the episode with a visit to the some of Medellín's rougher barrios for a traditional Sancocho lunch and a little local culture. His hosts are the neighborhood's residents - people who have experienced a dramatic rise in their standard of living in recent years. What was once the training ground for the Colombian drug cartels and their armies of mercenaries is now home to young adults who have started their own hip-hop crew, a filmmaker and a talented young chef. Thankfully Tony spares us the "kumbaya" moment at the campfire and gets back to what he does best - eating some tasty food and hanging out with his guests.
Bourdain's examination of Colombia offers the country high marks and an optimistic road to the nation's future success. It's the type of country that only Anthony Bourdain does best - a place cluttered with misconceptions waiting to be corrected. And although a "human interest" angle was definitely woven into the episode, No Reservations: Colombia was really all about the food. Tony's focus on the country's diverse and delicious cuisine definitely made this a surprising and very enjoyable episode to watch. But more than that, I found myself wanting to go visit Colombia - for any travel show, this is the pinnacle of a successful episode.