In China Miéville’s dystopian crime novel The City and the City, the plot pivots around the idea that two cities can occupy the same physical space, one which half of its inhabitants see clear-eyed and the other which they are trained not to notice, constantly in the corner of their vision. This may be sci-fi but it is also the story of all cities and the way people experience them, self-segregated along lines of wealth, race, and class. In Elephant and Castle it is possible to pin-point the border of one of these liminal zones: Eagles Yard, an alley of arches adjacent to the shopping centre that hosts a concentrated yet sometimes unnoticed food scene within its interstices.
La Barra is in one of these arches, principally a Colombian restaurant where standards are executed with extra-ordinary detail — empanadas that sing of corn with slow cooked strands of beef, hearty bandeja paisa — along with deep cuts like ajiaco, a Bogotà soup that relies on the unique taste of guascas, a leafy herb vital to Colombian cuisine. Searching for it, however, will return no Google reviews or Tripadvisor page. Just one article, from the summer of 2017, a news story detailing noise complaints against La Barra from residents of the new Strata Building, a shaver-shaped totem which has become the biggest symbol of gentrification in Elephant and Castle.
Well. If they can’t see them, at least they can hear them.
“It wasn’t actually us!” Maria-Luisa Riascos Solis, La Barra’s chef owner, emphatically points out. Like many other occupied arches in the area, it is shared between businesses to keep costs down, where Colombian hairdressers hold court in the back of Ecuadorian cafes, or in Riascos Solis’ case, a small restaurant directly under a bar, which serves as a hub for the local Dominican community. Everyone who comes here has at least one thing in common: they love loud music.
“Latin Americans are a people who love music, we listen to music everywhere, so working without music and eating without music wouldn’t be right!” she explains, while behind her members of staff go about their prep to the soundtrack of salsa music from Cali, Riascos Solis’ home city south-west of Bogotà.
Although La Barra is ostensibly Colombian, and as popular as Riascos Solis’ Colombian dishes are, it is not why most people visit; instead, most visitors are privy to the restaurant’s Dominican secret. On any given day, this is a restaurant space filled with groups. And they are all eating the same thing. The family out for dinner: Pica pollo. The couple on a date: Pica pollo. The huddle of hungry young Dominican men, carrying with them the same energy all groups of young men do when presented with a platter of meat: They’re eating the biggest pica pollo available.
Pica pollo is a Dominican obsession, a KFC amped up and given the full Latin works — at La Barra, five pieces of fried thigh, leg, and wings with a jacket of batter that has twisted and spluttered into dark brown curlicues in its death throes upon contact with hot oil. Instead of chips, it is served with tostones, crisp unripe plantains to be dipped in house made aji (chilli sauce). That’s not all — accompaniments include fatty pieces of chicharron and bofes, blackened pieces of lung jerky, softened by boiling and then fried up. The smallest portion costs £10 and almost every non-Latin American who has ordered one has a moment of fear when it comes to the table, wondering whether they’ve been sent the largest one by mistake. The food in Elephant is often mischaracterised as prosaic, but if the pica pollo is prose, then it has the direct, ungilded power of a Hemingway sentence.
Riascos Solis’ pica pollo is popular with everyone but cannily attracts the burgeoning Dominican population who have few spaces of their own outside hairdressers and bars. The dish was first put on the menu by a Dominican chef who worked with her; the idea was not successful but Riascos Solis beadily watched how she would prepare it then improved and refined it with her own twists. “I put a lot of passion and myself into it. The pica pollo is Dominican but the seasoning…is Colombian!” she giggles, politely rebuffing all further attempts to discover what she is doing differently. She gets about as far as admitting the chicken is marinated in vinegar and then a huge amount of lemon to give it its distinctive acidity. Garlic, too. But the rest? “Un secreto.”
For Riascos Solis the journey to get to this point has been long: a story which begins in Venezuela, then moves to Cali where her son Juan — who helps her at the restaurant and who translated this interview — was born, and where she started an amateur business with a kitchen selling only grilled chicken. When she moved to London she initially ran a stall in a Vauxhall market hawking empanadas, pandebonos, and coffee from a tiny cart, before moving to Elephant when the arches started sprouting small restaurants. About seven years ago she took over La Barra and has made it a success, but the oncoming redevelopment — both from the demolition of the shopping centre and the potential sale of Network Rail’s arches — has the potential to derail it. Her Spanish becomes more animated when this subject is brought up.
“I feel very sad that they’re taking away all the opportunities for hard working immigrants who came here to better themselves,” she says. “Most of us can’t afford a whole arch or a big space to rent, and the new ones are simply too expensive. The area has changed so much since I arrived. There’s a lot of new buildings, big beautiful ones, and lot of Spanish speakers, which is a good thing. But the bad side of that is that they’re trying to kick us out. We’ve built up the area to what it is. Latin people have added culture to Elephant and Castle.”
So much of La Barra is about memory and the recreation of home: it can be seen in the pictures of Cali and other major Colombian cities on the wall, in the pastel coloured fruit juices — mora, lulo, guanabana — that are transported all the way from Colombia, and which are as important a foil to salty south London chicken as soju is to the gochujang fry at CheeMc and a can of Rubicon is to Morley’s. La Barra is too good to fail, and if it goes because of rent hikes it will surely find a new home elsewhere, possibly down Walworth Road, but for many in Elephant the inevitable change represents nothing other than displacement in lives that have been defined by displacement.
“I picked Elephant and Castle for a reason — because of the Latin American community, all the cultures are here,” she insists, with defiance. “The majority of the people in the area work all day and have no money to go to expensive restaurants, but at my place they know they can get good food and a good price. When they come here they really do feel like its home.”