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La Casona's classic Colombian 

Colombian restaurant at the intersection of large and lively

The sign outside La Casona, a Colombian restaurant located on a lopsided street parallel to where Buford Highway meets I-285, advertises billiards and tacos. La Casona offers neither. What it does serve is Colombian cuisine done large and lively. Classic ingredients such as quality steak, fresh seafood, and staples such as starchy potatoes, yucca and rice and plantains are all flavored judiciously with garlic, cilantro and vinegar. Nothing is small. The ingredients are left to shine -- there are no spicy sauces or curious condiments served here.

The quarters are quite roomy and elegant, but cozy, with water fountains and a red-brick farmhouse façade that is representative of the earthy fare dished out home-style. An omnipresent flat-screen TV would be best replaced by ambient music, but hey, the formula seems to work. The best time to visit is after the lunch rush. The service staff is more relaxed and able to make suggestions. Bear in mind the restaurant closes at 8 p.m. nightly.

Portion Control: Both the quality and quantity of La Casona make for cheap eats. A couple could split an entree and order an appetizer or small portion of caldo, a stewy soup, and have more than enough food. For starters try the tostones con hogao ($3) -- a somewhat bland but texturally delightful small plate featuring flat mashed plantains fried crisp.

Pile it on: The entrees are divided into three simple categories -- Carnes (Meats), Pastas and Comida de Mar (Seafood). The sobrebarriga sudada ($10) is a hefty plate featuring a special cut of thin flank steak covered with a flat-tasting but colorful "creole" sauce of stewed tomato, onion and green peppers. Like most entrees, this is served with piles of sides. Daily specials are worth a try -- I had a great fried fillet of catfish served with fruity coleslaw and rice and the most interesting component -- a side of delicate fish-and-potato soup. Higado encebollado features calf's liver with onions Colombian-style, and lengua a la criolla or a la plancha offers tongue either grilled or sauced. For a mix of all things Colombian, there are the mini or regular bandega paisas, plates full of rice, beans, chicharrones (fried pork-meat strips with skins attached), beef, eggs, cornmeal tortillas, avocado and plantains. For $9 to $11, this pile of protein and carbs is a steal.

Stewing in our juices: Special cauldrons of long-brewed and likely magical stews are served on weekends. The mondongo is a tripe soup that's the Colombian equivalent of Mexican menudo. The ajiaco santafereño is a heady mixture of tender, stewed chicken, various potatoes and peas. The only things worth skipping are the far-too-bland arepas, corn pancakes smothered in various meats, sauces and cheeses and the adequate but unremarkable pastas. Be sure to try one of the jugos con leche or agua (juices with milk or water). The mango, guava, tamarind, berry and guanabana concoctions, along with a café con leche, will provide the proper nutritional and caffeinated get-me-up after a large lunch. Those who don't have to return to work might even try the aguardiente (water of the devil) liquor for a refreshment of its own special sort.

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