Out of the Ashes
Casa Colombia rebuilds after fire
Tue.-Thu., 11am-9pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-10pm; Sun., 11am-8pm
Austin is home to only one eatery solely dedicated to serving authentic Colombian fare. After an uncertain year-and-a-half following a destructive kitchen fire, it almost didn't survive. Now open for three months in its spacious new location, Casa Colombia is thrilled to be back serving its devoted diners.
In 2013, the future looked bright for the Nuñez family, who, together with longtime friend and chef Emilia Hurtado, had operated their Colombian eatery for six prosperous years in a small bungalow on East Seventh. The group prepared to break ground on a new property half a mile east, set to open within the next year. But a neighborhood-wide power outage in early November caused dinner service to halt abruptly. When the power resumed in the middle of the night, a suspected electrical surge ignited a fire that left the kitchen unusable. In addition to all new kitchen equipment, the building required considerable repairs, with no insurance help or sympathy from the landlord. Jazmin Nuñez, who co-manages the restaurant with her son, Joseph, says it was a stressful time. A piece of paper hung taped to the front door: "closed temporarily due to fire." Would-be patrons scrawled notes of condolences and cravings as the weeks turned into months.
Torn between throwing money into a property whose lease ended soon, or shutting the doors early, they decided to reopen for a few months into the summer. The general contractor at the new property promised completion just a month after the old lease ended, so the transition initially appeared to be relatively seamless. In reality, it wasn't until eight months later – after serious construction delays, difficulty navigating the city's stringent permitting process, and endless updates and apologies on social media – when the doors finally opened this spring.
"We didn't want to open on a weekend because we said, 'That's gonna be crazy,'" remembers Jazmin. "So we opened on a Tuesday, thinking that it was gonna be, you know, a few people here. ... It was crazy! People just coming in, in, in ...." The seating capacity nearly tripled with the new building, and now operations are running much smoother than on the chaotic opening night. "Last Saturday, for Colombian Independence Day, we experienced what we did at the beginning," says Jazmin. "This time was crazy too, but it was under control," she says with a big smile.
In addition to a roomier dining area, Casa Colombia now offers a private room for parties or meetings, a full bar, and an outdoor patio. The larger kitchen also allows for an expanded menu. New plates like the salmon en limón y mantequilla (grilled salmon in lemon butter) are quickly becoming favorites, but old standbys like the churrasco (top sirloin with chimichurri) and the grilled, marinated vegetarian platter continue to bring back loyal customers. Daily lunch specials include pernil-lechón asado – Joseph calls it a "melts-in-your-mouth pulled pork" – and a recurring weekend special, cazuela de mariscos (seafood casserole), has fans calling to see if it's being offered that night. Frozen mimosas and margaritas are made with real tropical fruit pulp – passion fruit, guava, soursop. And Joseph is busy devising cocktails inspired by Colombian spirits like the anise-infused aguardiente, aka "fire water."
Jazmin is relieved that the turmoil is behind them, and looks forward to working fewer hours in the coming months. Joseph, conversely, remains ambitious, and has plans to host after-hours salsa dancing. "Maybe after we've been open for six months or so, just one night a week," he suggests, looking at his mother for approval. "No way!" laughs Jazmin. "Maybe in one year. He works too much. I work too much. Don't mention the salsa dancing."
Casa Colombia2409 E. Seventh, 512/495-9425
Tue.-Thu., 11am-9pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-10pm; Sun., 11am-7pm