Caracas Arepa Bar
Sometimes I put a restaurant on my ever-growing must-try list and it just sits there for a very, very long time. This is exactly what happened with Caracas Arepa Bar, a little sliver of a spot that I've always wanted to try since it first opened three years ago.
Arepas, corn cakes stuffed with all sorts of savory fillings, are the main attraction at Caracas Arepa Bar. I first tried these delicious little pita like sandwiches when my friend Panchita, who grew up in Venezuela, made them from scratch for me and some other friends at her apartment about five years ago.
Earlier in the week, Daniel and I made plans to visit Caracas Arepa Bar with April, Josh, Tim and Judith, and though Hurricane Ernesto tried to soak our arepa-filled dreams with the buckets of rain, we didn't let the dismal weather deter us.
Our night began at April and Josh's where we were treated to a selection of specialty cocktails, including a spicy Bloody Mary that was the perfect pick-me-up on such a dreary night. Sipping one of those, while munching on spanikopita and mini quiches, we heard all about Tim and Judith's recent honeymoon in Brazil before walking the six blocks or so to the restaurant.
By the time we arrived, it was close to 10pm and the place was packed. We put our name in with the waiter and a half hour later, just as he had promised, a table for six became available. I immediately started taking pictures of the cozy space, its bright, vibrant colors a welcome relief from our rain-soaked city streets. Although I knew that the restaurant had recently expanded, I still only counted 12 tables in the whole place and a few seats at a teensy bar that had a front row view of the kitchen.
We all had arepas on the brain, but many appetizers, cleverly called sidekicks, beckoned as well. We agreed on an order of yoyos, guasacaca and chips, and an ensalada mixta just to get some greens. As for the arepas, our waiter suggested that we order the four samplers, called Curiaras, which would allow each of us to have two full arepas if we divided them all in half. Eager to try out as many of the fillings as possible, this seemed the best way to go. We also threw in a few of the night's special arepa, La Pierena, which featured pork shoulder, avocado, tomato slices and chimichurri sauce.
I was curious to try the restaurant's natural juice of the day (only after making the waiter promise me that it really was made fresh in the kitchen and not poured out of a bottle). They were serving papaya and passionfruit, which I chose to have mixed together, thinking the papaya would help soften the passionfruit's tart taste which it definitely did.
Served in a mason style jar with a straw, it was the perfect way to start off the meal, the two flavors reminding me of the fresh juices that Daniel and I drink whenever we're in Rio. I even slurped up a few small chunks of passionfruit, confirming that this juice was in fact fresh, another big plus for Caracas Arepa Bar.
The guasacaca, Venezuela's version of guacamole soon followed and we all tried to figure out what it was that made this avocado-based dip slightly different from its Mexican counterpart.
The consistency seemed a tad thinner, more similar to an aioli, and with a different type of zing which I think came from the addition of vinegar rather than lime. Homemade plantain chips became yet another reason to fall in love with this cheery South American sandwich spot.
The yoyos, little deep fried balls of bread cradling a plantain sliver and a hunk of cheese, offered a sweet start to the meal.
After a quick dip in a molasses like sauce with a hint of maple, we all agreed that they tasted a lot like French toast. I could imagine having a few of those in the morning for breakfast.
When the arepas arrived, they were served on long rectangular platters, each little pocket overflowing with some combination of vegetables, meat, beans, cheese, avocado or all of the above. As we tried to divide each of them, our knives fighting to crack through the tough exterior, I remembered that Panchita's arepas had been softer both inside and out, more closely related to a corn muffin.
At Caracas, the arepas are baked to a nice golden brown, resulting in a harder shell that I think helps avoid any potential sogginess once they're stuffed. Each bite was crackly and crunchy with a hint of corn flavor.
I'm pretty sure I tried every single one of the 12 different arepas that were on our table, and while most were absolutely delicious, there are a few that really stood out, the first being the Da Pabellon with shredded beef, black beans, sweet plantains and aged cheese. I also found the Reina Pepiada with chunky chicken and avocado salad to be quite refreshing, even if it was on the salty side. La Jardinera with grilled eggplant, sundried tomatoes, caramelized onions and guayanes (a creamy Venezuelan cheese) was definitely my least favorite, the combination of flavors colliding rather than blending together.
By the time there wasn't a single arepa left, the entire restaurant had cleared out and we had the entire place to ourselves. Almost everyone was too stuffed to even contemplate dessert, and since Daniel and I had already satisfied our sweets cravings for the day with slices of Diner Dark chocolate cake and a vanilla cupcake at Baked in Red Hook, we too were ready to pur our forks down.
Just as the menu said, the arepas really were an inexpensive gastronomic experience, with the entire meal costing just about $25 per person (and that includes a couple beers and a bottle of wine). It may have taken me three years to finally get to Caracas, but it won't be that long till I go back.
Caracas Arepa Bar
93 ½ East 7th Street at First Avenue