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This Colombian Street Snack Is a Meal You Have to Excavate

<i>Patacon con todo</i>—literally, a fried green plantain with everything—is a cheap and filling mess of sausages, shredded chicken, onions, cheese, potato sticks, and tartar sauce, eaten on the streets of Cartagena.

The elegant masonry along the streets of Cartagena begs for interaction. Consider, for instance, the cherub-studded fountain in the middle of the Camellón de los Mártires plaza, where a man was dunking his feet and washing his flip-flops—and where, five minutes later, I found another man splashing his face in the same water and lapping up every other handful. Or the 200-year-old fluted thresholds, against which women in tight shorts leaned and made a variety of hushed kissing sounds as I walked past them. (Sorry, ladies, but I'm not employed by the US Secret Service.)

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A mural facing Cartagena's Plaza de la Trinidad. All photos by the author. patacon con todo

So it's unsurprising that in such a walkable environment, social scenes sprout and coalesce in the city's plazas. Every night during my time in Cartagena, I joined the gathering of musicians, food cart crews, and drinkers in the Plaza de la Trinidad, the centerpiece of the funky Getsemani neighborhood. Flanked by a boxy, 17th-century church, crumbly stucco, and brilliant street art, the plaza allows its throngs to catch evening breezes that fend off the Caribbean heat.

Drinking alcohol is permitted in the square, and thanks to an open-air grocery store facing the church, a cold beer is never far away. When I would buy a bottle of Aguila beer, the sweating clerk would customarily flick the bottle cap out of the store and onto the arc of the street, where it would join a few dozen caps already smashed into the pavement by passing taxis.

One night, I decided to accompany the beer with one of the street food offerings, so I chose the cart with the longest line: Hamburger Gabriel. But not for a hamburger. The three-person crew builds only one kind of item at a time in an assembly line, and was at that time constructing a fleet of growing pyramids, two dozen or so, arranged tightly on the edge of the cart like planes on an aircraft carrier. Each was a , or fried green plantain with everything.

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The Hamburger Gabriel team in burger-building mode. plancha

Popular along Colombia's Caribbean coast, patacon con todo is a marvel of thriftiness and caloric excess that seems to claim a pedigree of indulgent cross-pollination among poutine, pizza, and leftovers. Common ingredients include sausages, shredded chicken, onions, cheese, potato sticks, and tartar sauce, all piled in layers on top of a fried patacon patty, Yertle-the-Turtle-style.

The cook had just thrown a two-kilo block of cheese onto the and chopped it coarsely and savagely, as if he were offended that the cheese dared to be sold in such a large size. At the front of the cart, another cook was busy mortaring a layer of shredded meat onto each plate's pile with squirts of ketchup.

As I waited, something between a squeak and a chant cut across the sounds of sizzling meat. Behind the cart, a young woman in a white mask without eye holes had just raised her hands and was delivering what sounded like a spell. Or just poetry, I guess. But as soon as she spoke, all the stray dogs near her faced her and began to howl. Apparently, her spell only seemed to affect canines.

Photos by the author.

Patacon con todo from Hamburger Gabriel.
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The stray dogs soon returned to their regular friendly personalities, earning them behind-the-ear scratches and belly taps from people seated around the church. The dogs didn't hobble along with the sagged, twitchy gaits I'd come to expect from Latin American strays, and they showed no fear of humans. The patrons of the plaza treated the dogs like communal pets. Their dinner consisted of hot dog bits, corners of fried , and whatever else fell onto the porous stones in front of the church.

I would soon contribute to the strays' buffet, as some of the potato sticks—balanced on top of the freshly completed plate I'd just bought—fell off. So what else was on the plate? I endeavored to eat a trench down the middle to find out. The plaza was glazed in a dim yellow from the streetlights, so I couldn't see exactly what I was eating. I probably should have brought a headlamp to assist in the excavation. I broke through a crust of potato sticks, revealing a fibrous stratum of meat. Probing deeper, I hit a blobby pocket—cheese, I presumed—followed by the vacuous crunch of iceberg lettuce (the only kind of crunch iceberg knows how to offer), and a soft bite of butifarra sausage. Then something coy and soggy, offering no resistance. That was it: at the bottom, I'm happy to report, a patacon. But a resigned patacon, a characterless mush thanks to the grease and the unforgiving weight of all the stuff on top.

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Hanging out at Cartagena's Plaza de la Trinidad.

I never saw the patacon con todo in daylight. But I walked away from the square satisfied that I had successfully scored a cheap thrill (9,500 pesos, or about $3).

The strays felt differently. While sucking up everything else off the stone steps, they avoided the liberal sprinkling of fallen potato matchsticks, leaving me to contemplate where my tastes belonged in the hierarchy of standards of the Plaza de la Trinidad.