We unpack the corrientazo – Bogotá’s cheap and cheerful lunchtime menu.
Google Translate says corrientazo is a “large electric shock”. What am I missing?
Here corrientazo better translates as “large set lunch”, derived from the almuerzo corriente, the workman’s set lunch originally devised in Spain by dictator General Franco, but now big in Bogotá.
Is that the same as menu del día?
Not really. Regular restaurants draw in the lunchtime crowd with a cheap set menu – menu del día – but still have a wide menu where you are welcome to choose. A proper corrientazo restaurant keeps costs down by mass production with limited options. These food choices might be written on a blackboard or barked at you by the waiting staff.
Sounds very limited.
Yes, on any given day. But most places change the corrientazo daily, so eat there all week and you’ll get a variety.
So, what are the options?
Pay attention, as you will only have a microsecond to decide and order before the waitress gives up and moves to another table.
- Sopa o fruta? (soup or fruit?). This is the starter and will arrive precisely three seconds after you gave the order.
- Pechuga a la plancha, pollo sudado, o carne en bifstek? (Grilled chicken, stewed chicken or steak?). The second course is often called the seco (“dry”, to distinguish it from the soup) and there might be three or four options. It will arrive exactly 30 seconds after you finished the starter.
- Ensalada, lentejas o espeghetti? (Salad, lentils or spaghetti?). Whichever you choose will come with the seco. If you smile nicely you might get all three.
- Limonada o mango? (Lemon or mango?), the juice drink (jugo) to wash it all down. There is invariably homemade lemonade, but an alternative fruit is usually offered.
Of course, these are just examples. Brisket, pork chops and kidneys are also common. Some corrientazo restaurants offer a top-tier option, the menu ejecutivo, slightly pricier, with things like fish (usually mojarra) and BBQ ribs. Red beans (frijoles) and plantains (flattened as patacones or fried as tajadas) are often offered with the second course, or maybe mashed pumpkin (ahuyama), or Russian salad with beetroot.
Is there any dessert?
Usually not. You might get a boiled sweet with your change after paying.
Are corrientazo’s healthy?
Very. These restaurants are family run, with homestyle cooking, and food is mostly stewed or grilled, making it healthier than fry-ups common in countries like the USA and the UK. Ingredients are bought in local markets, and the high turnover means food is freshly served. In theory, the Bogota Health Department monitors hygiene in all 23,000 restaurants in the city, but don’t count on that. A more useful measure is a restaurant’s popularity with the lunchtime regulars. A busy eatery is unlikely to be poisoning its customers.
Does it taste good?
This is wholesome food, but unlikely to set your taste buds ablaze. You can spice it up by asking for a small bowl of picante sauce. Also remember you can spend a lot more money on bland food in Colombia; at least this is cheap.
What about veggie options?
Some vegetarians ask for the seco without the meat or fish, and stick with the lentils, rice and salad. This is still a good lunch, and you’ll get a discount. The other option is the menu del dia at one of Bogotá’s growing number of vegetarian eateries.
So how cheap is it?
Inflation caused a 25% price hike in prices in 2022, and a proper corrientazo now costs around 10,000 pesos (US$3) in Bogotá, though in workman’s cafés in poorer areas of the city there are still lunches for 5,000 pesos. Generally, corrientazos are around half the price of fast-food meals in large shopping malls, and in most cases cheaper than cooking at home.
Where can I find a corrientazo?
Corrientazo restaurants are in humble buildings with cheap rent in parts of the city where workers congregate for lunch, close to office buildings, industrial zones, busy streets and local markets. Avoid shopping centers and Estrato 6 areas where a cup of coffee will cost more than a whole almuerzo corriente.
How to spot a good corrientazo?
Several websites provide lists of their top corrientazos, but beware; these are mostly mainstream restaurants with a set lunch option. For the real deal, you need to get out on the streets and look around. Here are some tips for a good corrientazo establishment:
- There is no sign. The reputation speaks for itself.
- The place is close to full, with suited businesspersons, manual workers and arty types.
- There is no cardboard menu, and especially no QR code. Look for writing on the wall or wait for the waitress to reel off the options.
- Your legs can’t quite fit under the table.
- It opens at 12 noon and closes at 3pm. Proper corrientazo eateries only do lunch.
- Costs are maximum COP$10,000 for the corrientazo, and maximum COP$13,000 for the ejecutivo, if that option exists.
Variations on a theme
Of course, over time Bogotá’s corrientazo culture is diversifying and there are variations in many parts of the city: dine-in bakeries (panaderias or cafeterias) are offering set lunches, and even small corner shops (cigarrerias) will cram a few tables in and offer hot food. There is an increasing crossover with comida rapida – which is generally fried food but will also offer a healthier corrientazo. You’ll also find regional varieties such as the Pacific seafood restaurants whose menu del día is likely to be fried fish, coconut rice and a large patacón.
Paying and tips…
Pay after the meal at the counter, not at the table. The price is usually fixed, but if you had extras let the owner know to include them in the bill. In larger places, the waiter will leave a tab on your table to take with you to pay. Tips are not expected, but if you give a small note to the waiters they won’t complain.