La Fogata: a cauldron of comforting and authentic Latin dishes

From the moment you enter La Fogata in Pittsfield, Mass., the convivial atmosphere greets you at the door. After being warmly welcomed, you can sit wherever you like – as long as the crowd permits. Pick a seat by the front window, where you can enjoy the mini-display of South American flags and browse through the Latin grocery selection. Or, if you’ve missed Iron Chef lately, you can pick a table that allows you to see the stovetop action. Either way, you won’t miss the delicious aroma that keeps you anticipating your meal.

Once seated, start off with a fruit juice blended in either water or milk, making the icy drink reminiscent of a smoothie. Definitely try the maracuja (sour jackfruit), but be aware that it tastes like an exotic island, so you may be disappointed to open your eyes and discover that you haven’t left Massachusetts. The mora (blackberry) in water is also delightful, especially if you’re parched, but try it in milk if you’d like a new, fruity spin on the milkshake. Whatever combination you choose though, the fruity concoction is sure to prime the palate for what’s yet to come.

La Fogata is known for its juicy yet tender carne asada (roasted meat, traditionally steak) platters, as well as its sumptuous rice and beans. These grilled dishes are called “fritanga” or “fried food” and, with a wide variety of fruits, are hallmarks of Colombian national cuisine. The starches of the Colombian diet include yucca, a type of potato, and one of my personal favorites, plantains.

If you’re feeling especially adventurous, try adding the hot sauce (that comes on the table) to any and everything on your plate. Spice is something as integral to the food at La Fogata as the traditional cauldron used for cooking rice. The flavors are different from the American diner – they are not laced with jalepenos or spicy peppers – and will not overpower even the shiest of taste buds. For the best of all worlds, try the carne asada platter, which comes with rice, beans, and salad.

One of the best-kept secrets of La Fogata is the rice dishes. The traditional rice with chicken is out of this world, and for seafood lovers, there’s also a version with shrimp – a salute to Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The rice is cooked just until well done, but is not overly soggy, and just bursts with flavor with hints of saffron, garlic and chili powder. Chunks of sweet red and green bell pepper compliment the rice, and the lightly seasoned shrimp balances the competing creamy and crunchy textures of the dish. This entrée also comes with a small salad and plantains. Although it was my first time enjoying Arroz con Camarones, I highly doubt that it will be my last.

The Latino grocery corner of La Fogata is one of the best parts of the restaurant. Everything you would need to make an authentic Latin meal is there, including the pots and tamale wrappers! A surprising variety of rice, including rice flour, as well as an assortment of beans, both dried and canned, fills the shelves. I was surprised to find refried black beans, a departure from the more common refried pinto beans.

The coffee selection is one that I’d highly recommend to any lover of the brew, and the store includes the sweetened, condensed milk often added to coffee in South America. For a sweet accompaniment, they also sell strawberry wafer cookies, as well as Colombian Christmas cookies.

There are spices galore, including Goya’s ubiquitous Sazon, along with canned peppers and mole sauce. Corn for roasting, corn tortillas, flour tortillas, fruity caramels and virtually everything a cook needs for the perfect Latin meal can be found at La Fogata, excluding the traditional meats. For an authentic drink, try the champagne cola, or one of the tropically flavored sodas.

Like the bonfire in its name, La Fogata is a place for sharing more than meals. The cozy atmosphere of the restaurant is reminiscent of any family-run restaurant, but with a special emphasis on authenticity. The message of the restaurant is that yes, you can enjoy amazing food at the restaurant, but that you can even take a few ingredients home to bring a little Latin cuisine into your own kitchen. From the moment you open the door, you feel like a guest in someone’s home. The lovely wait staff is patient and informative, and the menu, which is in both Spanish and English, is welcoming and helpful. It is this element of dining that I have often found lacking at restaurants in New England, but if you’ve been missing it too, take a trip to La Fogata in Pittsfield. You won’t regret it.