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Guasaca's arepas embody a taste of Venezuela

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The arepa: A simple but beloved food tradition native to Venezuela, it is the centerpiece of both a recent documentary, La Reina de las Reinas, and Guasaca, a new eatery in Raleigh.

Guasaca diners have been flipping out over arepas as fast as these South American sandwiches are tossed over the grill. Hyperbolic? Maybe. See the evidence via the stream of Instagram postings of arepa #foodporn (I've snapped my own salacious #arepa pics) and the steady lines of people that have packed the restaurant in the just six weeks since it opened.

Round and flat, an arepa resembles Latin American staples more familiar to our Carolina palates: Salvadoran pupusas and Mexican sopes. The salient difference is in the way these tortilla sandwiches are cooked—griddled and baked, not fried. The arepa's exterior stays crisp, branded by charred grill lines, while the interior remains fluffy. In Colombia, they serve mostly as a base for toppings. In Venezuela, and at Guasaca, they are split open as pockets for juicy fillings.

With white and lime green priming the walls and a clean, bright interior, Guasaca updates the authentic Venezuelan arepera, or "arepa bar." A restaurant version of a working-class, paper sack lunch, the concept became popular in the 1950s. The Raleigh version, which loses none of the tradition's authentic appeal, models itself on a healthy fast-food dining concept, with an order-at-the-counter style. Service at Guasaca is quick but never rushed. The friendly bilingual staff beams warm smiles from the counter, offering samples and answering questions with a casual, tropical lilt that eases any nerves of patrons trying new cuisine.

A simple menu clearly defines seven signature arepas and build-your-own options. (The latter come as rice bowls or salads. Do not dare to be so boring.) Cradling the food in your hands forces you to meet your entire meal at eye level. There's no need for lifting a fork daintily up to your hungry mouth. You've got to lean in, elbows on the table, hunker down and devour.

If you're a newbie, start with the Mechada. At $4.10, it's a monstrous steal for shredded beef—the most succulent item on the menu—roasted in a marinade with just enough garlic. Black beans, also slow-cooked, pico de gallo and white cheese tuck in for a well-balanced breadth of flavors most likely mirroring the homemade arepas of yore. Inconspicuously named red sauce comes on the side and fires up the meal. If you are intimidated by spicy food, proceed with caution. (Guasaca's owner wouldn't reveal the pepper medley, though notes of habañero are obvious.) Yet if you're ready to torch your taste buds, lather it on and ask for it as a side to any of the arepa options.

Braised pork and grilled steak ($4.10 each) provide equally tender meat in chunks, with the addition of black-eyed peas for an earthy undertone. The pork is served with a side of mustard sauce, sweetened by what tastes and looks like a red pepper relish.

Entice a seafood lover to try the fish option ($4.45). Braised tilapia proved too sharp, but sweetened with baked plantains, caramelized onions and mild white cheese, it's undeniably the most interesting menu item. The savory, subtle flavor of turmeric rounds out the candied flavors of the plantain and onions. If you prefer sweet over savory, bathe each bite in the suggested accompaniment of cilantro sauce.

While it seems like an Americanized option, the avocado chicken salad ($4.45) is actually a Venezuelan classic called "la reina pepiada." Although the cultural reference doesn't exist on this menu, the famous arepa was named for 1955 Miss World Susana Dujim. In those days, curvy women were called "pepiadas."

I can't award this dish a crown, though it seems to be popular with kids. Avocado makes chicken salad creamy, providing a nice respite from American mayonnaise versions. I do like it, but the cold filling would be better suited on a warm day.

The vegetarian ($3.90), however, is my new go-to. Packed firmly with black beans and caramelized onions, it also embraces two menu items specific to that arepa. First is a vinegar-based coleslaw so tangy and crisp that I now order it on the side just to scoop up plain. Last is the crown jewel, the restaurant's namesake—guasaca. This avocado dip packs more lime juice than any guacamole and is flecked with minced red pepper. Order this on the side and slather it on everything.

One arepa provides plenty for one person. I suggest a group outing to try them all. With your elbows already firmly planted on the table, it makes it easier to pass them around.

This article appeared in print with the headline "A simple beauty."

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