Let’s start with the beef arepa: griddle-cooked corn dough stuffed with oozing cheese, avocado, tender shredded beef and pico de gallo.
Then, the patacón pisao: a sturdy platform of fried green plantain, a consistency somewhere between a french fry and a tortilla chip, topped with black beans, beef, avocado, cheese and salsa.
Finally, the empanada: corn dough fried to a delicate veneer that cracks under your teeth as you break into the creamy potato and beef inside.
Adriana Monge, who owns El Sitio, Eugene’s only Colombian food truck, with her husband, Mario Monge, says a Colombian American customer once came to her food truck telling her she hadn’t eaten empanadas since her mother died six years ago. She came to El Sitio to remember her mother, to revisit her kitchen through her taste buds.
“Try the empanadas,” Adriana told the woman in Spanish. “Hopefully they will come close to the empanadas in your memories, those of your mother.”
The woman ate the empanadas. She thanked Adriana and told her that they tasted just like the ones her mother used to make.
El Sitio, a food truck located in a food truck court on Barger Drive in north Eugene, serves Colombian staples that Adriana says she prepares to be as close as possible to what she ate while growing up in Bogotá. As a plus, the food truck is 100 percent gluten free and safe for people with celiac disease.
“The flavor is as close as possible to traditional Colombian cooking,” she tells Eugene Weekly in Spanish.
Adriana Monge says she always loved food and cooking. But in Colombia, she worked in business. When she immigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2001, she kept this up, always working for other people.
In the Bay Area, she met Mario, who’d immigrated from Cuscatlán in central El Salvador in 1989, fleeing the Salvadoran civil war.
They got married and worked their respective jobs: Adriana as a businesswoman, Mario as a house painter.
The Monges moved from the Bay Area to Eugene, following one of Adriana’s sisters who lived there, and continued working for other people: Adriana at the nonprofit Centro Latino Americano, a support organization for Latinos in Lane County, and Mario still painting houses. But they dreamed of owning their own business.
In 2011, they started selling empanadas and plain cheese arepas at a bakery in Springfield that housed a few small vendors. In 2017, they opened the truck in the food truck court at 8th and Olive downtown, then moved the truck to Barger Drive in the fall of 2020
“I liked working in business, but I always told my husband we should have our own, that we have the capability, the love, the passion to do it,” she says. “We always dreamed of this.”
Adriana says El Sitio’s most popular dishes are the arepas. Arepas are corn griddle-cakes similar to Mexican gorditas and Salvadoran pupusas. In Colombia, arepas are eaten with eggs for breakfast, with steak for lunch or dinner and with a cup of coffee or Colombian hot chocolate as an afternoon snack. It’s something you can eat anywhere: at home, in a restaurant, on the street.
“In Colombia, instead of bread, you eat arepas,” she says.
Mario says the main distinction between arepas and the pupusas of his homeland is the type of flour used. Pupusas, as well as gorditas and tortillas, are made with a dough of corn treated with lye to shed the husks of the corn kernels, called masa harina. Arepas, on the other hand, are made with masarepa, a corn dough that’s made with whole untreated corn kernels. Masarepa tastes more like fresh corn than masa harina.
At El Sitio, you can order plain cheese arepas, black bean and cheese arepas, shredded beef arepas, chipotle-chicken arepas, vegetarian arepas and llanera arepas. The vegetarian arepa comes with avocado, cheese, pico de gallo and sweet plantains. The llanera comes with all of the fixings of the shredded beef arepa plus sweet plantains.
Adriana says that unlike the firm, green plantains used as the base for the patacón pisao, which are fried once, flattened, then fried again to a crunch, the sweet, soft plantains are only fried once. The buttery sweet plantains serve as nice balance to the tangs of acid and sparks of spice in the pico de gallo.
Mario says the pandemic severely hurt business in March and April of 2020, but it’s doing better now, especially since moving to the new location. They have plans to open a second food truck in Eugene or Springfield in the near future and maybe start a brick-and-mortar somewhere down the line so that Adriana can serve a larger variety of Colombian dishes.
Mario continues with his work as a painter, but he also works at the food truck, as do their kids, who are 11 and 16. He says the kids are learning valuable career skills working at the truck as well as how to work and get along as a family.
“Working together as a couple in a kitchen has been really hard,” Mario says. At the beginning, they would squabble while they cooked. But then they figured out a system and learned to communicate better. Now, he says all it takes is a look to tell Adriana what he needs.
And from all of this, Mario has learned how to cook. “Who would have thought?” Adriana says. He still doesn’t cook at home, but Adriana says maybe in a few years he’ll get there. Both say they are proud of their business and what they’ve accomplished.
“We believe that the American dream does exist. If you make goals for yourself and your capabilities, you can achieve whatever you want,” she says. “We’ve done that.”
El Sitio is located at 4190 Barger Drive. It’s open from 11:30 am to 6 pm Tuesday through Saturday. It also caters private events. Check the Facebook page “Antojitos Colombianos ‘El Sitio’” for up-to-date information.