Until 12 years ago, Venezuelan food was virtually unknown in New York. At that time there were approximately 10,000 Venezuelans living in the city, accounting for only one-half of one percent of the city’s Latin population.
That was the year Caracas Arepa Bar opened in the East Village, principally peddling Venezuela’s foremost fast food: sandwiches made by splitting and stuffing a fluffy white corn cake known as an arepa. Arepa sandwiches were an instant hit, propelled over the succeeding years by the anti-gluten craze and increased immigration from Venezuela as a result of widespread social unrest.
Also, these arepa sandwiches were just plain good. They constituted a new form of cheap fast food that many New Yorkers regarded as novel and exotic, yet with flavors that were somehow instantly familiar. Now there are 20 Venezuelan eateries in town and the number is rapidly growing, concentrated in the East Village, Williamsburg, Bushwick, Washington Heights, and Astoria, and Venezuelan fare is beginning to feel like a next big thing. Its principal ingredients are timely: pastries and sandwiches substituting corn and plantains for wheat, plenty of avocados, fresh cheeses, and shredded meats and poultry not aggressively seasoned — though tart mango and hot chile sauces stand at the ready.
Gradually our Venezuelan menu has been fleshed out and we’ve gone beyond stuffed arepas to other forms of street and casual food (a category Venezuelans are inordinately fond of), such as deep-fried empanadas with corn casings, plantain sandwiches called patacones, elaborately dressed hot dogs and hamburgers, and cachapas — giant flapjacks made from fresh corn stuffed and folded over like crepes. So, too, have we learned to appreciate more traditional types of Venezuelan cooking, and even had a taste of what might be viewed as Venezuelan haute cuisine.
Here are 10 great places to get some fascinating, wholesome, and lighthearted Venezuelan fare.
Caracas Arepa Bar – Our first Venezuelan restaurant was an arepera, a small cafe that specializes in arepas. The handsome, wood-and-brick-lined interior is decorated with figurines of Catholic saints, and the menu includes 12 stuffing choices, of which reina pepiada (shredded chicken, avocado, and mayo) and la mulata (grilled cheese with black beans, jalapenos, and sweet plantains) are a couple of the most popular. A few sides and three set meals fill out the brief menu. Two doors west find a carryout division of the same restaurant, and Williamsburg and Rockaway Beach each has its own branch. 93 1/2 E 7th St, (212) 529-2314
Patacon Pisao – A real change from the usual arepera, Patacon Pisao is a new brick-and-mortar establishment spawned by a truck that has parked on 202nd Street in Inwood since 2005. The place specializes in sandwiches called patacones that originated in the far-west city of Maracaibo, with two crisp slices of green plantain standing in for bread. Eating one takes a bit of practice. Patacon Pisao also mounts a complete menu of Venezuelan snacks and street food, including cachapas (sweet-corn crepes), tacuchos (Venezuelan burritos), and pastelitos (fried pies stuffed with meat and potatoes). 139 Essex St, 646-678-5913
Santa Salsa – Built to resemble a food truck, Santa Salsa is a concession occupying a back room in a Williamsburg bar called Over the Eight, dreamed up by avid skateboarders. It concentrates on elaborately dressed wieners — one’s nearly a full meal. Perro con todo ("dog with everything") arrives heaped with cheddar cheese, potato chips, onions, slaw, and ketchup, but as if that weren’t enough, it is then heavily squirted with a sprightly corn sauce called santa salsa. The effect on your taste buds is electric. Further frank choices, heavily dressed burgers, and a classic Venezuelan hero called pepito (stuffed with skirt steak) further bolster the menu. Your food will be delivered to the barroom, where a full bar is available. Santa Salsa also fields a truck in Rockaway Beach in the summer. 594 Union Ave, Brooklyn, (347) 683-2605
Tepuy – Chef Adriana Urbina produces an eight-course Venezuelan tasting menu in a south Williamsburg loft every Thursday evening. She uses some of the cuisine’s most prized ingredients to create a series of small dishes laid out like modern abstract sculpture, including yams, pureed blood sausage, pineapple, heart of palm, and cashew milk. A recent meal began with an amuse tour-de-force of an oyster in its shell marinated in passion fruit juice, a black bean toast, a cone-shaped corn fritter, and a scallop mounted on a wafer with edible flowers, all laid out on a tray lined with black pebbles. BYOB. firstname.lastname@example.org
Guacuco – Named after a famous beach on Margarita Island, which sticks out like a finger into the Atlantic on Venezuela’s northeast coast, Guacuco revels in its beach-shack feel. Though principally a bare bones arepera, it also sells salads, three typical platters (including a pabellon oriental featuring shredded fish rather than shredded beef), and cachapas, which are especially good. This is the place to grab a Polar beer, Venezuela’s best-selling lager, and kick back. A shark empanada is also memorable — representing a common beach snack. 44 Irving Ave, Brooklyn, 347-350-3300
Guacuco Hot Dogs La Hamburguesa Especial and Cachapas y Mas exterior.
Guacuco Hot Dogs – This spiffed-up offshoot of Guacuco lavishes its attention on wieners and hamburgers. The interior is more studied and carefully arranged with objects d’art, and the hot dogs available in eight permutations, many quite elaborate, including a vegetarian model topped with sprouts, tomato, avocado, jalapenos, and various sauces. The biggest surprise is a burger called La Hamburguesa Especial, featuring a thick beef patty lavishly heaped with greenery, cheese, bacon, sauces, and a runny fried egg, with a Venezuelan flag planted patriotically on top. 234 Starr St, Brooklyn, (718) 821-3039
El Cocotero – The name of this rustic restaurant — decorated like a farmhouse with red tile overhangs, orange wall treatments, and homely objects — means "coconut palm" in Spanish. The menu features home-style cooking at a bistro level, and the cocktail of choice is the Guarapita, a potent concoction of passion fruit, mango, and Venezuelan rum. The menu offers many unique items, including sweet plantain and anise arepitas with a nata dipping sauce (a cross between cream and sour cream), and hallaca, a tamale wrapped in a banana leaf with chicken, beef, pork, raisins, and olives, among other things. This is where expats take their friends to show them what their country is like. 228 W 18th St, (212) 206-8930
Cachapas Y Mas – While most Venezuelan cafes cater to a middle-class constituency, this Inwood institution is one of a handful of places with a decidedly working class clientele. Furnished with picnic tables for seating, the brightly colored interior makes no attempt at nostalgia. The menu offers a very complete menu of street snacks, including the rare yoyos — like patacones, only using two squishy and sweet rounds of ripe plantain. Delicious, especially when filled with chorizo, a hot dog-like sausage flavored with cumin. Cachapas, arepas, tacuchos, and pepitos fill out the menu. 107 Dyckman St, 212-304-2224
Arepas Grill – This slightly upscale Astoria restaurant in a strip mall looks like a restaurant in…a strip mall, with flat-screen TVs, lots of mirrors, and suburban-style lighting. The food is often near-great, with lots of arepa choices, including a mixed seafood number called rompe colchon ("busted mattress"), perhaps referring to the Viagra-like properties of seafood? Or does it make you so fat you break the mattress? So, too, does the entire menu partly concentrated on beach food, including a wonderful pabellon margariteno — shredded baby shark in creole sauce attributed to Margarita Island. The passion fruit sangria is another plus, but a couple of Venezuelan friends pronounced the arepas themselves as not fluffy enough. 21-19 Broadway, Queens, (718) 355-9686
Tu Arepa Pizza Café – Some of the best arepas in town are unexpectedly found at this pizzeria just off the main drag of Queens Boulevard in Forest Hills, owned by Ysabel Chang, a Venezuelan of Chinese descent. The pabellon — featuring the national dish of shredded beef — is way overstuffed and so is perico, filled with eggs, tomatoes, and onions in a very fine-textured scramble, a great brunch dish. The cheese-stuffed cachapas are also exemplary, though much smaller than usual. Finally, the plain cheese slice sampled had an especially thin and crisp crust. 100-22 67th Ave, Queens, (718) 766-8900