There are few ingredients Chef Viviana Acevedo always has in her kitchen.
“I cook with a lot of love.”
But besides all of her love, she always uses some Panela.
Nestled on this quiet side street in Lowell, Panela is a family run restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Siblings Viviana and Juan Acevedo wanted to create a place where people could get a true taste of their home country of Columbia.
“I want people to experience Colombian food. I know there’s not a lot of people that know about Colombian food. I want people to know Colombian food for everything that we have. Because you’ve never had this.”
“A lot of people when they first come in, they will ask, Is it spicy, and is not spicy. It is just a lot of flavor, a lot of taste and a lot of juice.“
And when it came to naming their restaurant, Panela seemed natural as it’s a sweet ingredient Viviana uses in much of her cooking.
“This is panela!”
“Panela is raw sugar cane. It’s boiled into a rock that looks like brown sugar. It’s very natural and it goes great on everything. I put it on all the sauces. I put it on the vinegars. I put it on the dressings. I put it on the meat. There’s panela on everything you taste in this restaurant.”
The restaurant itself is divided into two distinct parts: A dining room decked out in Columbian murals, and a bar area, clad with street art, and the occasional salsa lesson.
“People that come here. They love it. They want to dance. They want to drink. You can eat here. You can eat on the other side as well, the bar is big and lots of lights and awesome drinks.”
You can kick off your meal at Panela with these yucca fritters stuffed with cheese.
And the empanadas are outstanding. Each pressed, stuffed, formed and fried by Viviana and her dad.
“When we first make the masa. Then he scoops the balls, to the perfect measurement. And then you have to make it really flat. Once we put them in the molds. I put the meat inside of a I close it and then it goes around the container. This is going to be really crispy when you eat it and it’s nice and fluffy almost like a little pillow. If you eat it with the sauce, you want to bite the little tip first and then you want to put the vinegar in it. You want to taste the meat and you want to taste the vinegar. The spiciness from the vinegar. It’s really good.”
The handheld options at Panela include this burger chock full of cheese.
“It is a burger stuffed with queso cocana and mozzarella cheese blend. There’s nothing I love more than burgers with cheese and when you have a cheese that you’ve never tasted before, the queso concana, it just brings it to the next level.”
For a Columbian version of a burger, order the Paisa.
“The Paisa Burger is very traditional from Columbia. It has pineapple sauce. He has pink sauciness mustard. He has ketchup in it. You have cheese, you have the bacon. You have the coleslaw and you have crumbled up potato chips inside of it. And to top it off, you have a quail egg. When you bite into it is just it drips down is very good.”
And if avocados are your thing, get yourself the Avocado lover arepa.
“It’s like a pillow full of goodness. You have lime juice. You have avocado you have crispiness. You have everything you want inside of it. Sometimes it’s a little too much inside of it. You want to just grab it almost like a burger and bite into it.”
If you’re up for something more substantial, there are dishes like this one featuring coconut shrimp served over a corn battered fish with a chimichurri drizzle. Or a good ol’ New York Strip served over a plantain crostini.
“It is delicious because you have this sweet plantain you have the perfectly good steak. You have the avocado sauce you have the chimichurri a balance of sweet and savory and you have the crispness and you have the softness with the steak, and everything’s just delicious.”
Breakfast is served all day every day, which is great because you’ll want to try one of their sandwiches stuffed with meat, avocado and an egg. Or this indulgent morning meal of Columbian cheese bread baked stuffed with bacon and egg and topped with tomatoes and cheese.
“So baked Almojabana is our famous cheese bread.It is so unique. It’s chewy and it’s cheesey and it’s soft and it is so delicious.”
But the true Columbian way to start your day is with one of their signature arepas.
“So arepa chicharron is very big for breakfast.You make it like a sandwich. Put the chicharron with the arepa almost like a taco. Or you can just take one piece of chicharon, one piece of arepa and eat it little by little.”
And there’s nothing little about the love this family has for each other and for their restaurant.
“It’s very rewarding. In the beginning, it’s a little stressful because I’m not used to working with my family and I’m very stubborn. But it’s very rewarding because it makes you feel like you did something, you know. When we came to this country to get a better life and we’re going to accomplish way more things.”