The Arepa's Saving Grace

ArticleBrian WaniewskiComment

An arepa is an unleavened, slightly puffed pillowy bun made from ground corn and water. It’s grilled then baked, sliced open then stuffed. En route from hand to mouth, it releases a steamy corn-tinged exhalation of what’s to come: in my case, black beans, grilled peppers, sweet plantains and cheese. But you should order whatever fillings suit your fancy. The minds behind Caracas Arepa Bar made an arepa for every taste and reach well beyond the smoky pulled pork, tender shredded beef and grilled chicken chunks which are staples in so many Latin cuisines. In fact, four of the eleven arepas on offer bypass meat completely, and baked tofu is on hand as a serviceable substitute for all the rest. And I cannot tell you what a relief that is to me. As a vegetarian, non-drinking gringo with poor Spanish language skills and two left feet, I tend to fall out of just about every ritual of warmth and welcome my Peruvian wife’s clan plans for my benefit, which tend to involve drink, dance, meat-centered feasting and fast chatter. Finally, here is a place where we can all share a table and break bread without the usual explanations, recriminations and hurt feelings. Hurray for Venezuela! Hurray for Caracas Arepa Bar!

That the fare at Caracas is fantastic seems to be a fact well known to New Yorkers, given the wait times just to get a table. But I’d like to linger on a couple highlights from the several meals I enjoyed there.

To start, there’s an array of fried goodies, featuring mild white cheeses, sweet plantains, chorizo and cinnamon-laced doughs and batters. These are perfect thirst-generators for a huge selection of rums, cocktails, beers and wines, and for a delicious lemonade-like brew, called Papelón con limón, with its fermented finish of dehydrated cane sugar. These starters are also perfect canvases for the sauces—tangy, sweet, well spiced, syrupy—that come on the side. The strangest was the pure sugar cane syrup that accompanied battered plantains and cheese and seemed to want vinegar or salt or chile to signal that we had not fast-forwarded to dessert. The most irresistible sauce was in the squeeze bottle sitting on every table, a sour-sweet cilantro-green house-made concoction waiters seemed well versed in elevating to the status of “secret” by deflecting diners’ inquiries.

You will overlook the menu’s humble soup at your peril. Both the vegetable soup—with its heavy dose of corn and potato—and the butternut squash puree I had were pure simplicity, full of flavor and sweetness.

The arepas are the main event of course. But for diners who want something more than steaming hand-sized pockets full of goodness, there are beans and rice, beef or tofu, plantains and cheese-type platters too.

The dessert I would recommend is the Obleas: a pair of paper-thin flavorless six-inch round wafers sandwiched together with a spread of dulce de leche, a silken paste made by reducing milk to caramel. Church-goers will immediately recognize this divine dulce de leche delivery mechanism as the bread of life they receive weekly and wonder whether it and they have landed in heaven. It arrives at the table warm, delicately wrapped in a sheer sheet of waxed paper.

The restaurant itself was artfully designed to deliver the look and feel of the informal settlements that climb the hillsides surrounding Caracas. The walls are facaded in a bric a brac of mismatched wood boards, aluminum roofing sheets, colorful back-lit plastic panels and other materials aiming to appear re-purposed. All in all: a visually cohesive, meticulous, surprisingly calm space with pretty good sound absorption, considering the crowds it pretty constantly attracts. And it opens out into additional garden seating! Which is to say, the location in Williamsburg does. The original Caracas is in the East Village, where wife-husband owners Maribel Araujo and Aristides Barrios first started pedaling arepas in 2003. And because that location is hardly big enough for two people to turn around in, the gestures it is able to make toward Venezuelan culture are limited to a mural of Maria Lionza—an indigenous female cult figure—and some shadow boxes stuffed with religious icons and witty kitsch.

In the summer you can find a third location of Caracas at the Rockaway Beach boardwalk. Which brings the arepa and all its associated delights back to their natural environment of sun and sand. That’s where I’ll be this summer, along with my wife, daughter and Peruvian clan, raising our glasses to the glorious saving graces of the arepa at Caracas. Come join us.

Photos by Doug Todd.