OpenCalais Metadata: Latitude: 
OpenCalais Metadata: Longitude: 

(From left to right) The Pechuga de Pollo, Bandeja Paisa (bottom), Tamal Valluno (top), and Ceviche at Casa Colombia, a Latin American restaurant in East Austin.

Photo Credit: Jorge Corona | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s note: The interviews in this article have been translated from Spanish.

The themed lamp posts and the small benched waiting area, conjuring the Alamedas and the central plazas of many Hispanic cities, announce to the prospective diner that he won’t be in Texas much longer. Not completely, anyway.

Inside, the walls are adorned with maps of Colombia and small “fachadas,” miniature facades of colonial house fronts that instantly remind of childhoods left behind.

Such is the enchantment of Casa Colombia, a restaurant of eponymous genre hidden on East Seventh Street and helmed by manager Jazmin Nuñez and chef Emilia Hurtado.

Before their partnership the place was originally called “Mi Colombia,” managed solely by the current chef, Hurtado, and nearing bankruptcy. Nuñez recalled the times:

“[Emilia] had Mi Colombia, and she was about to close [permanently]. Then my husband — an American — said we couldn’t lose the only restaurant dedicated to Latin American food.”

As friends of Hurtado’s, Nuñez and her husband stepped in, managing the house while Hurtado focused on the kitchen. Nuñez’s intention was to partner up for a year only.

“Now we have five years with Casa Colombia, and it’s been going very well,” Nunez said.

Casa Colombia evokes deep-seated emotions in the visitor, Latino or not, with its carefully crafted elements of nostalgia. Centerpiece to this is the food; a potpourri of South American options that are as close to comfort food as comfort food gets. Hurtado’s touch keeps the platters as typical Latin American home style as she can.

Pechuga de Pollo, a chicken filet, grilled and bathed in a smooth lemon butter sauce, served with green beans, fried yucca (a potato-like vegetable) and a white rice pilaf tastes like a recipe that a grandmother could have made but forgot to. Much of the same can be said of the Churrasco, a steak served with an olive oil chimichurri sauce, a South American staple. Or for those willing and wishing to go big, there’s the Bandeja Paisa, a meat lover’s delight with beef skirt, chicharron and egg over white rice, fried plantains, avocado and a thin bread called “arepa.” For the fish-driven, the Ceviche Peruano with fried plantain is fresh, limey, avocado-y and delicious.

For Chef Hurtado, a shy and humble emigre from Colombia, owning her own restaurant was always a dream. But it was not easy.

“I learned [to cook] by observing. I worked as a housekeeper, where I learned a little,” Hurtado said.

After arriving in Austin in 1994 and working in local schools, she started selling tamales and empanadas from home, as well as making meals for her group of friends. Hurtado’s dream was always to open her own restaurant. Hurtado is quick to correct with humility.

“My dream was always — not a restaurant like this ... but [just] selling rotisserie chickens and roasted potatoes. That was my dream,” Hurtado said.

She cites her lack of formal training as the source for the formidable and homey taste of her food.

“I am not a ‘chef.’ I didn’t go to any culinary school to get any training. What I make are home recipes. They’re not every [Colombian] recipe, but what I can, I make. I’ve tried to preserve that. To keep the food like that ... typical,” Hurtado said.

Hurtado’s effforts have paid off, earning her accolades from organizations like spanish news publication El Mundo.

Then, not-a-chef Hurtado smiled a slow, building smile with a bright, honest shine in her eyes.

“My source of great pride is that people come here from all over. Central Americans, North Americans, Asians ... all nationalities,” Hurtado said. “That’s what satisfies me the most. To see that someone of humble origins like myself is making something that everyone who comes here loves. That brings me great pride and I thank God for it.”

Printed on Monday, September 24, 2012 as: Chef keeps food close to home

WASHINGTON — A top lawmaker briefed on the investigation into a Secret Service prostitution scandal said more firings could be imminent following the ouster of three agency employees.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw more dismissals and more being forced out sooner rather than later,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said Thursday. King is being updated on the investigation by Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan.

“You may see a few more today or tomorrow,” King added.

The Secret Service has moved quickly to quell the scandal that erupted late last week, when at least some of 11 agency employees implicated in the incident brought prostitutes back to their hotel in Cartagena, Colombia, where they were setting up security for a visit by President Barack Obama.

So far, three people involved have lost their jobs. The service said Wednesday that one supervisor was allowed to retire, and another will be fired for cause. A third employee has resigned.

In Washington and Colombia, separate U.S. government investigations are under way. The Secret Service has investigators in Colombia, and King said he has assigned four congressional investigators to the probe. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, led by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., sought details of the Secret Service investigation, including agents’ disciplinary histories.

In a letter to the Secret Service director, Issa and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s senior Democrat, said the agents “brought foreign nationals in contact with sensitive security information.” The lawmakers have demanded that Sullivan provide them by May 1 with detailed information about the incident, including a full timeline of the events and assurances that none of the women involved were under the age of 18.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the Secret Service employees under investigation “stupid” and said there is not much Congress can do to stop others from making similar choices.

Issa said Thursday he would wait until the Secret Service finished its internal investigation before deciding whether to launch his own committee probe.

While congressional lawmakers pushed for more answers from the Secret Service, the White House, frustrated by the election-year embarrassment, pleaded for patience.

“What I’m not prepared to do is to offer you sort of day-by-day commentary on new revelations or even new actions taken with regards to this investigation while it’s still under way,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “I don’t think that’s helpful to the process.”

Printed on Friday, April 20, 2012 as: More firings soon in prostitution scandal 

President Barack Obama at sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia on Saturday, finalized a Colombian free trade and labor pact.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CARTAGENA, Colombia — An embarrassing scandal involving prostitutes and Secret Service agents deepened Saturday as 11 agents were placed on leave, and the agency designed to protect President Barack Obama had to offer regret for the mess overshadowing his diplomatic mission to Latin America.

The controversy also expanded to the U.S. military, which announced five service members staying at the same hotel as the agents in Colombia may have been involved in misconduct as well. They were confined to their quarters in Colombia and ordered not to have contact with others.

All the alleged activities took place before Obama arrived Friday in this Colombian port city for meetings with 33 other regional leaders.

The Secret Service did not disclose the nature of the misconduct. The Associated Press confirmed on Friday that it involved prostitutes.

The 11 employees in question were special agents and Uniformed Division Officers. None were assigned to directly protect Obama. All were sent home and replaced, Morrissey said, given “the nature of the allegations” and a zero tolerance policy on personal misconduct.

Another jolt came Saturday when the U.S. Southern Command said five service members assigned to support the Secret Service violated their curfew and may have been involved in inappropriate conduct. Carney said it was part of the same incident involving the Secret Service.

The Secret Service agents at the center of the allegations had stayed at Cartagena’s five-star Hotel Caribe. Several members of the White House staff and press corps subsequently stayed at the hotel.

A hotel employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, said the agents arrived at the beachfront hotel about a week ago and said the agents left the hotel Thursday. Three waiters interviewed by the AP at the hotel described the agents as drinking heavily during their stay.

On the steamy streets of Cartagena, a resort city with a teeming prostitution trade, there was condemnation for the agents for what residents saw as abusing their station and dishonoring their country.

News Briefly

BOGOTA, Colombia — Rescuers are searching for signs of life amid mud and rubble after a rain-fueled landslide buried homes in northwestern Colombia, killing at least
21 people.

Red Cross rescue director Cesar Uruena says between 20 and 40 people remain missing from Saturday’s landslide in Manizales, 165 kilometers (102 miles) northwest of the capital, Bogota.

Uruena said Sunday that 29 bodies have been identified.
The landslide was caused by heavy rains that caused part of a mountain slope to collapse.

Rescuers are using back hoes and earthmovers to search for survivors. Uruena says they think “there is still a chance of finding life.”

News Briefly

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia’s main rebel group has acknowledged the death in combat of its leader, Alfonso Cano, and has declared illusory any notions it means the end of their 47-year-old insurgency.

The leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is characteristically defiant in a communique that derides the “guffaws” and “enthusiastic toasts” of Colombia’s establishment.

The communique posted on the Sweden-registered Anncol website late Saturday is signed by the FARC’s senior command.

It pays homage to Cano, who was killed Friday.
The brief message makes it clear Cano will be replaced. It says he died fervently convinced of the need for a political solution to Colombia’s long-running conflict.

A South Korean protester participates in a rally against a free trade agreement between South Korea and the United States in Seoul on Wednesday. While some U.S. businesses and workers stand to benefit from lowered tariffs, foreign workers may suffer from increased prices.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Congress approved free trade agreements Wednesday with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, ending a four-year drought in the forming of new trade partnerships and giving the White House and Capitol Hill the opportunity to show they can work together to stimulate the economy and put people back to work.

In rapid succession, the House and Senate voted on the three trade pacts, which the administration says could boost exports by $13 billion and support tens of thousands of American jobs. None of the votes were close, despite opposition from labor groups and other critics of free trade agreements who say they result in job losses and ignore labor rights problems in the partner countries.

President Barack Obama said passage of the agreements was “a major win for American workers and businesses.”

The agreements would lower or eliminate tariffs that American exporters face in the three countries. They also take steps to better protect intellectual property and improve access for American investors in those countries. The last free trade agreement completed was with Peru in 2007.

The House also passed and sent to Obama for his signature a bill to extend aid to workers displaced by foreign competition. Obama had demanded that the worker aid bill be part of the trade package.

The agreement with South Korea, the world’s 13th largest economy, was the biggest such deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada in 1994.

Despite the strong majorities, the debate was not without rancor.

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said the “job-killing” agreements were a “complete flip-flop for President Obama, who won crucial swing states by pledging to overhaul our flawed trade policies.”

In Cartagena, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said, “Today is a historic day for relations between Colombia and the United States.” He added that the agreement with his country “is going to generate much well-being for our peoples.”

But Tarsicio Mora, president of Colombia’s CUT labor federation, said Colombia’s economy was not ready to compete with the U.S.

“Our country isn’t developed, it does not have the expertise much less the requirements for trade at this level,” Mora said. “The country should be clear as to who is responsible for the coming massacre, because industry, large and small businesses are going to be hit because we are not in a condition to compete.”

The United States has free trade relations with 17 nations. It could still take several months to work out the final formalities before the current agreements go into force. The South Korean parliament is expected to sign off on its agreement this month.

Printed on Friday, October 14, 2011 as: Overseas trade partnerships 'a win for businesses'