Venezuela, a South American country that was once a destination for immigrants — it took in scores of Italian, Spaniards, and Jews after World War II — is now fueling what might be the largest migratory crisis in the Western Hemisphere. Nearly two million have fled since 1999, when the late authoritarian Hugo Chavez rose to power; recent waves of refugees have left to escape widespread hunger, skyrocketing inflation, and political violence. Of the nearly 28,000 Venezuelans that sought asylum in the U.S. last year, most ended up in Miami and South Florida, where they’re buying homes en masse and reshaping the local culinary scene.
New York City’s Venezuelan community, by contrast, hovered just below 10,000 at the time of the last census in 2010, though reports suggest deteriorating conditions back home have pushed that number higher. The Venezuelan diaspora’s impact on the Big Apple restaurant community, of course, is already indisputable, with more than a dozen restaurants having opened since the early aughts.
Writer Alejandro Punyana, reporting for NPR, says that when Venezuelans migrate, “we bring arepas with us,” the savory corn cakes that are sometimes griddled, sometimes fried, and often split and stuffed like a bao with stewed meats or cheese.
Caracas Arepa Bar, the fine work of Maribel Araujo and Aristides Barrios, helped turn this South American staple into a hip New York foodstuff when it opened in 2003. The focus of this column, however, is the year-old outpost of Arepa Factory at Turnstyle food hall, which comes courtesy of Maracaibo-born Monica Muzzo.
The kitchen, under the oversight of chef Rafael De Garate, makes the soft, aromatic cakes at the East Village flagship (est. 2015) before shipping them to Midtown, where they’re heated to order. Counter workers fill the handheld pockets with ingredients that range from traditional — shredded chicken, pork, avocado, or cheese — to more adaptively international, like short ribs showered in cheddar or Peruvian ceviche.
The correct order is the pabellon, a classic blend of heady shredded beef, sweet fried plantains, and Guayanés cheese, a stupendously delicious Venezuelan milk curd whose concentrated dairy punch equals that of good mozzarella di bufala. You eat half the $9.74 pocket with a fork before even daring to pick it up as a sandwich. The robust cakes stand up to the ingredients with more strength than, say, a typical American slice of white bread.
There is, I should note, another starchy option for the pabellon or any other preparation at Arepa Factory — the regal cachapa, a lumpy pancake of sorts that’s laced with fresh corn and folded like an American brunch omelet ($12.40). It is intensely sweeter than an arepa, and, without question, a perfect foil for the salty-dairy punch of the Guayanés.
I’m rating the arepas and cachapas at Arepa Factory a BUY. The Turnstyle location is located adjacent the excellent Bolivian Llama Party, near the 57th Street entrance.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).