In a side street of Cartagena’s working class neighborhood of Getsemaní is a restaurant that receives clients on a first-come, first-serve basis given that the small venue cannot accommodate more than a dozen guests per seating. Having earned a reputation among locals as the “Kitchen of Pepina,” the menu of this endearing locale was created by María Josefina Yancés from ancestral recipes of her family’s kitchen, and one inspired by her native department of Cordoba.
Until her death in 2014, Yancés’ kitchen was a reflection of her admiration for tradition, local ingredients and a culinary heritage that extends from the coastal mountains to the sea.
La Cocina de Pepina continues to be a reference in Cartagena’s crowded gastro scene for authenticity and good value, especially among costeños who are discerning, if not demanding, customers. Yancés’ culinary legacy has now been passed on to nephew Christian Sepúlveda, who, while overseeing the Cartagena restaurant, has embarked on an ambitious venture to bring “The kitchen of Pepina” to Bogotá.
Having recently opened the family’s first venue outside Cartagena with head chef Harold Quitián at the helm of Bogotá’s La Cocina de Pepina, when word got out among the costeño community resident in the capital, the ebb and flow of guests has been constant.
I meet up with a Carlos Vives – not the singer – inside one of Pepina’s main floor diningroom, which is considerably more spacious, and loftier, than the Cartagena orginal. Vives, a Cienaguero, is making his third gastronomic pilgrimage to try dishes that stir-up memories of his childhood on the coast, especially Pepina’s legendary fish cazuela and Mote de Queso soup. “The Mote is such an insignia dish of the coast, but very few cooks get it right,” emphasizes Vives.
Vives, an expert on the history of the coastal and its gastronomy, orders the house’s selection of entrées, served on a round platter and that include a corvine ceviche, shrimp cocktail, pickled eggplant, sweet chili peppers and classic boronía: eggplant and plantain purée. According to Vives, boronía can trace its culinary lineage to Syrian-Lebanese immigrants who arrived in the lower Magdalena River valley during the late 19th Century and established much of the region’s garment and textile trade.
The coastal Boronía is an evolution of the Middle Eastern’s Baba Ganoush. The platter was accompanied by oven toasted arepas and coastal cream cheese: suero costeño. My personal favorite – and repeat appetizer – were the sweet chilies filled with minced meat.
For my main I opt for one of Cartagena’s most typical dishes, the posta Cartagenera. The posta is a braised rump of beef, slow-cooked in panela (raw sugarcane) and spices, and generally sliced as medallions. The portion was succulent, tender, cooked to perfection (at least six hours), and overly generous. I struggled, after the entrée, to finish my plate.
My dining companion who can recite every variety of plantain grown on the coast went for his Mote de Queso, a soup made with salted farmer’s cheese, and sweet yam. I could tell by his expression that he was back in his mother’s kitchen, being doted upon by white-aproned domestic servants. For refreshments, we both ordered some fizzy drinks made from fruits endemic to the coast, including corozo and gulupa.
With a menu that serves both lunch and dinner, as well as Sunday brunch of fried snacks – fritos – that include carimañola, arepa de huevo and enyucado pancakes, La Cocina de Pepina is a welcome addition to Chapinero Alto, and gastronomy circuit that unites the international with local. Located in a barrio where Japanese, Colombian Pacific, Italian and global fusion are culinary partners, the sophisticated flavors of Cartagena and Montería are now well represented in a new dining experience that transcends a specific territory. Even though territory is at the heart of Pepina, and Pepina the heart and soul of Yances.
La Cocina de Pepina – Calle 56 No.4A-11
Open Tuesday through Saturday: 12:30 pm to 4:00 pm and 7:00 pm to 10:00 p.m
Sundays and public holidays: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.