A bit of research and common knowledge has led me to understand that Arepas are rooted deep in the cultures of two neighboring countries, Colombia and Venezuela. Leaving recent political rivalries aside, we put these two countries to the test in a Battle of the Arepas.
Since Venezuela is credited for pioneering the Arepa movement in the US, we decided to take a trip to Brooklyn's Caracas Arepa Bar (718.218.6050/ 291 Grand St. b/w Havemeyer St. and Roebling St.). Located in the heart of gentrified Williamsburg, the ambiance of Arepa Bar is very hipster-trendy, using recycled and raw building materials as decorations. Their outdoor seating and open windows create the perfect springtime atmosphere. We arrived at the perfect time, exactly half an hour before people were waiting in line to be seated and the employees, who had been chatting with us about the place, began racing back and forth shouting orders in the already fast-paced Venezuelan dialect.
To accompany the arepas, Venezuelans have created one of the most refreshing non-alcoholic drinks i've tasted, papelón. It's simply made of sugar loaf or panela (compressed sugar cane extract), water and lime. I would call it upgraded limeade! The papelón below was almost empty when I took the picture not only because of how refreshing it was but because it was Jaquie's drink. Her mutant ability is to absorb liquid very fast (Tribute to the X-Men craze).
Split open like pitas and stuffed with a large variation of ingredients, the Venezuelan masa (dough) is a bit greasier than its Colombian counterpart. From what I understand, it's also consumed more commonly as a nighttime food in Venezuela whereas Colombians consume arepas mainly during breakfast.
Before I get into what we ate, I have to admit that I have a weakness. If I see chorizo on a menu, any dish containing this spicy Spanish sausage becomes my number one choice. I think Jaquie has the same weakness because we ordered the only two arepas that had chorizo. The first was called Los Muchachos (The kids), which was stuffed with grilled chorizo, spicy crisped white cheese, jalapeños and green peppers. I was expecting a little more spice and it was a bit too greasy, but that's what you get if the main ingredient is chorizo. Overall very tasty and the crispy cheese added a crunch that went well with the arepa.
The second arepa was la Sureña (The Southerner). A chorizo and chicken stuffed delicacy with avocados and, as the menu describes, the always enigmatic spicy chimichurri sauce. (See Don't try to Eat Argentinaaa post for a link to an amazing chimichurri recipe). This arepa was also quite tasty but again greasy and had way too much going on at once. “Venezuela, you make a great arepa and you sure do know how to market it in the urban scene.”
Now let me introduce the competitor, the Colombian Arepa, which eaten alone is probably less enjoyable than regular white bread or a plain pita. Zero salt or oil is added creating a bland taste. It’s really all about the toppings, the crunchy exterior and the soft inner texture. Colombians traditionally place their toppings on top of the arepa, though the stuffed arepa is beginning to surface more and more as it crosses the barrier of homemade breakfast to a nighttime street food.
Arepas Pues Mixtas (83-15 37th ave/ phone # does not work) is owned by a middle-aged Colombian couple that began their venture by selling arepas in Flushing Meadows Park. The chatty lady reminded me of one of my aunts because of her comforting nature. While she mentioned that they haven’t had much success with advertising, it looks like word of mouth seems to be working just fine for them because a few minutes after we arrived, the very small eatery was jam-packed with Colombian arepa lovers even after their closing time.
The place has no menu and only two choices: Arepa mixta or arepa with butter and cheese. The new aged, non-traditional arepa mixta has all the main proteins stuffed in one arepa. It starts with my absolute favorite tasting thing in the world, chicharron (pork rinds). Think not of the stuff you get in the bag but instead bacon on steroids. Next is a layer of chicken followed by shredded beef, which Jaquie enjoyed much more than I did. She described it as tender and juicy. I was too busy trying to dig up the chicharron. Lastly, it's topped with shrimp in salsa golf (ketchup and mayo) which is used on practically all Colombian street foods.
We then had a more traditional butter and cheese arepa, which I thought would come served with the butter and cheese on top instead of inside, but I guess Arepas Pues Mixtas is sticking to their modern ways.
After much deliberation, Jaquie and I concluded that even though Venezuelan arepas are well worth the buzz and several trips to Brooklyn, Colombia comes out on top. The simplicity of the traditional butter and cheese arepa is so satisfying that it becomes a staple food you will constantly crave and go out of the way to prepare again and again. The new-age arepa mixta has three things that destroy its Venezuelan rival:
2. A lighter, healthier, crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside arepa
3. Salsa Golf
Need I say more?
You can do it yourself!! I've included a picture of a supermarket bought arepa which I toasted, buttered up and placed Colombian cheese and two eggs on top. This is the Colombian breakfast of champions.