Nestled on the grubby roadside of Avenida Caracas, the artery that runs through Colombia's capital, and between the hip, cosmopolitan neighborhood of Chapinero and the residential Teusaquillo, lies what appears to be little more than a derelict parking lot.
But this parking lot has been curing Bogotá's hangovers for 25 years.
El Caldo Parao is a two-table restaurant inside a shipping container, though the place is hardly the kind of upmarket, recycled-chic space that so often indicates gentrification. (Bogotá does have those, too) The place is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. During the day, it's popular with taxi drivers refueling between fares, but after dusk the parking spaces house plastic tables and chairs to serve the night owls as they spill out of the city's trendy clubs and bars. Tonight, the Saturday before Halloween, the place is rammed with costumed revelers who have all come for one thing: the caldo de costilla.
Caldo de costilla, one just a handful of items on the menu, is a beef rib soup studded with potatoes and onions, garnished with a pinch of cilantro. It's simple, but a Bogotá delicacy famed for its ability to disappear the most brutal of hangovers.
"The caldo here is the best," said Yamith, a marketing engineer who was at the end of his night out with colleagues. "It brings you back from the dead." His comment tickled me, given that a bunch of drunken diners tonight were in costume: zombies, skeletons à la Mexico's Día de los Muertos, and the creepy twin girls from The Shining.
Maria Alicia Rubiana, El Caldo Parao's co-owner, is coy about what makes the inconspicuous roadside stand's soup so much better than others in town. "There's no great secret," she told me, rushing between massive metal pots. "Big portions, good meat, and getting it served quickly."
The chunk of beef rib central to the caldo can often be a fatty, gloopy, chewy experience. But here, where it's been simmering for four hours, the lean meat falls off the bone without much provocation—sinewy, succulent, and bloody delicious. It's a heavy, unctuous broth, but because Rubiana ensures the hunk of Colombian beef is well-sourced, it's not too greasy. So often these soups can end up as bland variations of meat water, but not here. The small potatoes, often chucked in whole, are simple but tasty, soaking up the beefy broth and turning out as savoury obs of delight. At just 6,000 pesos (about $2 US), it's not pricey, and people come all over town for it.
"We could go anywhere, but you can see why we come here," Yamith shouted to me, sucking the beef bone dry before he helped his worse-for-wear friend to his feet. They both shuffled past the unnerving Shining twins on the way out.
Dealing with boisterous, half-cut revelers has become something of a science for Rubiana. "Well, you often get problems with people when they're sat down waiting," she said, still frenetically darting around in the tiny kitchen, moving with the zest and purposeful randomness of a bluebottle fly. Fiitingly, a customer arrives dressed as a Jeff Goldblum-spliced insect. "We get the food out to them as quickly as possible. When they're eating, they're not fighting."
Elsewhere on the short menu—rudimentarily displayed on scraps of paper tacked to the wall—you can get beef rib with rice and eggs. It's a simple, much heavier plate of food. The rice is just so, the eggs scrambled with just enough seasoning (so often overlooked in Colombia) but again the star is the beef rib. It's the same used in the caldo, but finished off in a pan. Pasteles de yuca are also popular. The small, crispy maize envelopes of shredded beef and starchy yuca, made fresh every day and deep fried, are also a hit with the disco-weary. On weekends they also serve up sopa de mondongo, a traditional tripe soup that's more popular with the hardened stomachs of taxi drivers. Patrons wash the revitalising grub down with tinto, a sugary, weak coffee. (Colombians often complain that as with the country's more infamous product—cocaine—the best stuff is exported, leaving locals with the sub-par leftovers.)
But really, the rest of the menu is a distraction. It's the caldo that keeps the tarpaulin-tented plastic dining area packed through the night, and Rubiana sees little reason to change it up. "I have no idea how many we sell a night, but it's well over 100," she said, beginning to catch her breath as the rush dwindled. "As long as people are partying, they'll come here and get a caldo to make the next day less rough."