Riccardo Romero has a dream, and arepas play a starring role.
The affable owner of Arepas Café (and its newer sister, Arepas Grill, which opened last year) in Astoria, Queens, Romero is betting that these cornmeal cakes from his native Venezuela—seared on a griddle and packed with an array of savory fillings—may one day be as widely eaten as, say, Mexican tacos.
"I think arepas have a shot to become the next great American food," he says.
He should know, as he's serving some of New York's finest.
At Arepas Cafe and Arepas Grill, the arepas are made in small batches throughout the day. They're griddled over low heat for about five minutes on each side until they're nicely browned and toasty to the touch, but still soft and creamy inside and redolent with the aroma of corn. They're served up steaming hot and pliable, packed with consistently delicious fillings—from classic combos like earthy, stewy black beans and crumbled salty queso fresco, to tender, seasoned shreds stewed beef, chunks of shark, and tangy ceviche, with rich add-ons like avocado, fried sweet plantain, and shredded cheddar cheese.
All you need to do is squirt on some of the addictive creamy green sauce on every table for a sandwich worth going out of your way for.
The Venezuelan Sandwich
The carb of choice in Venezuela and neighboring Colombia, arepas de maiz are made with three simple ingredients: pre-cooked corn flour (masa de arepa or Harina P.A.N., the most popular brand of masa), water, and salt—and can be griddled and served up in a matter of minutes. Sturdy and compact (about the size of a hockey puck) with a crisp, lightly charred outer edge and soft, dense interior, arepas are an ideal (if somewhat messy) meal on the run.
Venezuelans take special pride in their wide-ranging arepa fillings, and Romero is no exception. The menus at both of his restaurants are packed with traditional fillings found in areperas (fast food joints that specialize in arepas) throughout Venezuela, like shredded, poached chicken blended with avocado and cilantro (known as reina pepiada, or "the curvy queen"—a reference to a famous Venezuelan beauty queen) and tender stewed and shredded beef (carne mechada).
Romero has also devised some creative fillings of his own. One filled with canned tuna, onion, tomato, cilantro, avocado, and truffle butter pays tribute to his former career selling truffles to New York City restaurants. Another, coyly named El Patron ("The Boss"), combines scrambled egg, ham, cheddar cheese, fried sweet plantain, and avocado. It's Romero's go-to breakfast arepa.
"In Venezuela we put everything in arepas," Romero, 50, says. "We are more creative with the arepa. We open it up and we put anything in it." (By comparison, Colombian arepas, made by the likes of the Arepa Lady, are simpler affairs, most commonly filled with butter, cheese, or egg.)
Arepas are ubiquitous in Venezuela, a staple of both street food and home cooking. But there's far more to Venezuelan cooking, and Arepas Grill offers a window into it, as we learned after spending an afternoon cooking with Romero and Fide Cortez, a veteran chef in Romero's restaurants.
Patacones, a beloved street snack from Maracaibo (Venezuela's second largest city) and neighboring Colombia, are on the menu at Arepas Grill. It's an unwieldy but delicious mess: savory-sweet beef stewed with onion and sweet bell pepper, creamy wedges of avocado, salty-edged queso Guayanés, a crisp thicket of lettuce, and a trio of tangy condiments (mayo, ketchup, and yellow mustard)--all layered precariously between two huge tostones (smashed, twice-fried green plantains).
Several dishes from Romero's native Carúpano—a small city on Venezuela's Caribbean-influenced eastern coast—are also on the menu: stewed baby shark (cazón), an unusual ceviche that combines bits of sweet passion fruit with the usual onion and lime juice, and Romero's bracing passion fruit sangria (spiked with brandy, zinfandel, and red wine). Bottles of Trinidadian hot sauce (a searing blend of pickled papaya and Scotch bonnet peppers) on every table are a favorite in Carúpano, too.
As common in Caracas as hot dog carts in New York, cachapas are the ultimate blend of street food and comfort food. These sweet, fluffy pancakes (made with milk, flour, egg yolk, and fresh corn kernels) cradle a payload of fresh mozzarella and thick, soft slices of queso Guayanés. (The mozzarella comes from a local family in New York, but every month Romero orders 200 pounds of the semi-hard, un-aged Venezuelan cheese from a specialty producer in Miami.)
Cachapas (similar to Colombian arepas de choclo) carefully balance sweet corn and salty dairy tang with a satisfying, delicate chewiness. Romero's cachapas are lightly griddled for roughly a minute on each side. When the edges are browned and bubbling, the "pancake" is plated, the cheeses are layered on one half, and the pancake is folded over.
A staple meal in homes and the national dish of Venezuela, pabellón criollo is a hearty platter loaded with carne mechada (beef stewed with celery, onion, and garlic; then shredded and simmered with sweet onion and bell peppers), tajadas (fried sweet plantains), rice and caraotas negras (black beans—Romero makes his from scratch, simmering them with onion, bell pepper, and a hint of garlic), and crumbled queso blanco. The meat and beans straddle sweet and savory territory, and the cheese adds a sharp, salty edge. Mixed together in a single bite, it's rich and mild—ideal comfort food by any standard.
A Dream for Growth
When Romero opened Arepas Café back in 2007, there were only a few Venezuelan restaurants in New York City, and arepas were still largely unknown—except among South American expats. But business picked up after celebrity chef Bobby Flay featured the owners of Caracas Arepa Bar, a pioneering Venezuelan restaurant in New York's East Village, in an "Arepas Throwdown" on his Food Network show.
"Before Caracas, Venezuelan food [in New York] was presented only to Venezuelan people," Romero says. "They opened up arepas for other people. They presented it very well, and people went crazy."
If the success of these Venezuelan restaurants among New Yorkers is any indication, Romero's dream of building an empire of arepas, headquartered in Queens, may not be far off.
"Sometimes if we make the sangria too strong, I see the people in here going like this," says Romero, playfully affecting a drunken sway. "And they are saying, 'Hey, man, I love your arepas!'"
What Is Venezuelan Cooking?
Caribbean, European, and indigenous influences are all evident in Venezuelan cuisine and culture. Staple ingredients—beef and chicken (often stewed), seafood, fresh or brined cheeses, beans, cassava, corn, plantain, and avocado—are mild and hearty.
In Romero's restaurant kitchens in Queens, sweet red onion and bell pepper, garlic, paprika, cilantro, lime, passion fruit, and occasionally coconut are major sources of flavor. Condiments like ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, nata (sour cream blended with heavy cream), and guasacaca (an addictive Venezuelan take a guacamole, seasoned with green bell peppers, garlic, onion, lime juice, cilantro, and parsley) are always on hand.
"[Venezuelan food] is a blend of different cultures," he says. "It is a unique flavor."
Many Venezuelan dishes incorporate only a few simple ingredients. Meals typically revolve around protein (especially meat) and carbs, like rice, cornmeal arepas, and pasta (introduced by Venezuela's many Italian immigrants). At home, plain arepas are often eaten for breakfast with coffee, while lunch and dinner vary from light fare, like arroz y caraotas (rice and black beans), to heartier meat dishes. A stuffed arepa from an arepera (fast food joint) or a cachapa from a street vendor might be eaten for any meal or snack during the day—or night.
In his own kitchen, Romero likes to combine Venezuelan standards with Caribbean ingredients and Italian influences (picked up when he lived in Italy years ago). Carne mechada or fish stewed with onion, bell pepper, and tomato are common meals—as is pasta. Sometimes Romero experiments with new arepa fillings, like his current favorite combo: beef, sweet raisins, and bitter arugula.
"I'm lazy but I love to cook—with a nice bottle of wine next to me," he says. "In South America, everyone learns how to cook. It's part of the culture."