Tuesday, February 5, 2013

From Caracas to Cartagena with Arepas

Arepa Maker in Cartagena, Colombia
When Caracas Arepa Bar first opened it would be safe to assume that 95% of the hipsters lining up outside the doors of their diminutive East Village shop had never tasted an arepa before. Now, nearly ten years after the first store opened on East 7th Street, the love of New Yorkers for Caracas Arepa Bar’s signature item has allowed the trailblazer to open outposts in Williamsburg and Rockaway Beach (fate TBD post-Sandy) as well as double the size of the original by expanding to a sit-down restaurant next door.

New Yorkers, it would seem, have discovered arepas are not just a passing food fad bound to go the way of the cupcake shop, but a real, honest meal that is completely crave-worthy on a daily basis.

Like many, my first taste of an arepa was at Caracas- the restaurant, not the Venezuelan capital for which it is named.  I instantly fell for the pita pocket-like cornbread stuffed with various grilled meats, cheese, and vegetables.  Having been weaned on tacos in Southern California, the concept of a corn-based wrapper enveloping meat was not new. But these were a different beast altogether. 

John with a grilled arepa
Unlike a taco, an arepa is a thick patty of cornmeal.  The dough is then cooked- grilled, steamed, baked, or fried. A slit is then made to form a pocket in which any manner of filling can be stuffed.

It is to Caracas Arepa Bar I owe thanks for my excitement around a recent trip to Cartagena, Colombia.  In Colombia, like Venezuela, arepas are a common street food consumed by rich and poor, from the narrow, impeccably preserved lanes of the Old City to the shantytowns and working class suburbs. 

It did not take more than a hundred feet of walking on our first evening in the walled city of this UNESCO World Heritage site before we ran into our first vendor.  The disks of partially cooked dough were piled high the man’s cart like a mound of white hockey pucks. The vendor fanned a small mound of charcoal beneath the grill attached to the side of the cart where he would throw on the arepas to reheat as customers called out orders. 

Eating arepas in Old City Cartagena
It wasn’t until the next day, however, when we went out searching specifically for this national dish to fill our hungry mid-day bellies.  We found what we were looking for in front of the line for the Hay Festival- a posh literary gathering- the vendor doling out food to well-dressed intellectual types waiting in line for an author event.  It appeared even the bookish get hungry for arepas from time to time. 

At our signal two arepas were thrown on the grill.  Once charred, the vendor cut a deep pocket and into which he spread a bit of butter.  He opened two cubbies holding grated cheese and cooked ground beef. He stuffed the filling into the pocket to the point of nearly bursting.  Topped with a bit of hot sauce and washed down with a limonata, it was an ideal lunch.

Deep Fried Breakfast Arepa
Out at a beach resort a day later, it was a pleasure to find the local specialty on the menu as a breakfast item.  Here the pocket was stuffed with deliciously seasoned minced beef and raw egg before being sealed and dropped into a deep fryer.  Crackling crisp on the outside, the shell broke open to reveal a deeply meaty, moist interior. 

Egg filling

As it stands, it may take a flight to South America to find myself in a place where arepas are as common as tacos or a slice of pizza.  But if Caracas Arepa Bar keeps spreading the gospel of their signature food, maybe more people will discover what a bunch of intrepid eaters in NYC did a few years ago: arepas are damn delicioso.

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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