Saturday in the City – El Maizal
Take one step through the dark red door at 306 North Mulberry Street in Lancaster . . .
and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported into another part of the world.
From the spicy scents of cumin, pepper and chilies . . .
to the sultry sounds of South American guitar music,
from the life-sized paintings of brightly-dressed women with baskets of exotic fruits
to the terracotta colored walls, accented with deep green and sunflower-yellow
This is El Maizal – “un pedacito de Colombia en el corazon de Lancaster” – a little piece of Colombia in the heart of Lancaster.
“I have tried to create here the flavor of a typical neighborhood restaurant from my village back in Colombia,” owner Ramiro Velasco tells me, over a steaming mug of strong Colombian coffee.
Ramiro and his wife Gloria opened El Maizal (Spanish for “The Cornfield”) in Lancaster in December, 2009.
Before coming to Lancaster, Ramiro had lived in Miami for 35 years, where he owned a restaurant and nightclub. There, he had also pursued his passion and talents for songwriting as well as fine art painting. He had studied at the Fine Arts Conservatory in Cali, Colombia and won awards for both his art and his music.
In 1999, he came here to help his brother with his construction and commercial painting business.
“I was going to stay in Lancaster only six months,” Ramiro says with a laugh. “And here I am. Twelve years I have been here.”
Seven years ago, after quadruple bypass surgery, Ramiro realized he needed to get out of construction and commercial painting. “I needed to work on little canvases,” he says, gesturing to the paintings that cover the walls of El Maizal. All of them are his originals. (and all are for sale)
(here, a painting of mother and child, in a style inspired by one of Ramiro’s favorite artists, Diego Rivera)
(two paintings representing “Sancto Spirito”)
(and here, women dancing with the spirits)
As much as he loved doing his painting, Ramiro wanted to do more.
Gloria explains, “He does many things – he paints, he writes songs, he cooks. He always wants to create new things, because he has the soul.”
Ramiro realized that Lancaster didn’t have a Colombian restaurant. So he and Gloria purchased a former grocery store and spent ten months transforming it into “un pedacito de Colombia.” Ramiro tore out walls, and created the arched doorway that connects the front room of the restaurant to the back room. They were able to purchase some of the industrial kitchen equipment they needed with the help of a small business loan from Community First Fund (another great Lancaster organization – dedicated to building a more ethical, equitable and socially conscious economic community in Lancaster and beyond.)
Then Ramiro and Gloria set about creating a menu of authentic Colombian specialties, including “Antojitos Colombianos” (Colombian snacks) such as pupusas – tender corn cakes, with a layer of finely chopped pork and spices in the middle, and crisp empanadas, filled with a peppery mix of meat and potatoes.
Entrees include Arepa Montanera El Maizal (Grilled corn dough patty topped with creole steak and an egg); Chuleta Calena (breaded pork loin with rice, house salad and fried potatoes); Pechuga de Pollo a la Plancha (grilled marinated chicken breast with rice and house salad) and the Colombian staple dish, Bandeja Paisa – which is finely ground beef, pork sausage, beans, rice and egg, with sweet plantain and a grilled corn dough patty.
They also have several daily specials. Bruce and I have been to El Maizal quite a few times, and our favorite is Tilapia Reina. A thick fillet of melt-in-your-mouth tilapia topped with fat pink shrimps, seasoned with a rich garlic sauce. A mound of white rice topped with chopped cilantro and thick slices of sweet plaintain, lightly fried round out the meal. We’ve also sampled their signature dessert: a traditional flan, with a sugar caramel sauce. (it’s to die for)
What we love even more than their delicious Colombian food (all very reasonably priced, by the way!) is the incredibly welcoming, familial atmosphere that Ramiro and Gloria have created here. It’s a lively place, where you’ll hear the rapid patter of conversations in different languages and dialects, along with plenty of laughter. There’s often singing, too, because when he isn’t in the kitchen preparing your meal, Ramiro often comes out to the front of the restaurant, picks up his guitar and plays and sings for the customers.
Delicious food. Great music. Inspiring art. Vibrant community. It all comes together at El Maizal. This place is one of Lancaster’s hidden treasures.
And so are Ramiro and Gloria!
306 North Mulberry St, Lancaster, PA
Note: Be sure to plan ahead, especially if you want to go for dinner, as they close at 7pm most nights, 6pm on Sundays. They’re closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Wed – Sat, 11am – 7pm
Sun 11am – 6pm
Next: $4.50 a day