We were familiar with arepas, stuffed cornmeal cakes common in South America that look something like a puffed-up taco.
They can be stuffed with a variety of items, such as meats, beans and cheeses, or a combination of those. We weren’t familiar with reina pepiada arepas, so we took a shot in the dark recently at El Arepaso Venezuelan Café and ordered it.
The reina pepiada ($6) was loaded with what tasted like a mayo-based chicken salad topped with a sizable portion of smooth avocado, and it was delicious.
The reina pepiada wasn’t the only tasty item we had at El Arepaso, an almost year-old restaurant in the shopping center on the northwest corner of 81st Street and Yale Avenue, near Farrell Family Bread and Rib Crib.
Because we were ordering a couple of extra dishes, we shared a pabellon criollo dinner ($12), a traditional dish that is about as common in Venezuelan cafes as chicken-fried steak is here.
It includes a serving of seasoned, shredded beef with sides of white rice, black beans and tajadas, the latter long slices of fried sweet plantains. It’s OK to eat the items separately, but we like to mix the beef, rice and beans together into one, big satisfying bite.
Because we are fond of plantains, we ordered an appetizer of tajadas con queso y crema ($3.50). The sweet plantains were served with a somewhat tart, creamy sauce that my wife thought would go well with just about anything.
Matter of fact, she spooned a little of it in a pollo empanada ($4), and it was a good match. The pastry turnovers are filled with ingredients similar to the arepas, and our shredded chicken was deftly seasoned and tender. The empanadas here are as large as a good-sized fried pie.
Sauces are available to serve with the main items. They include a garlic aioli, a green sauce with mayo and cilantro and a spicy sauce for those who want to really kick it up a few notches.
We topped off the dinner with a slice of quesillo ($4). Quesillo is a cousin to Mexican flan except it uses whole eggs and not just the yolk, plus a type of cream cheese that gives it a more dense texture. It was pooled in a not-too-sweet syrup and could be habit-forming.
A display case of to-go items includes quesillo, alfajores (shortbread filled with dulce de leche and topped with coconut) and candies from Venezuela and Colombia.
Beverage choices include Frescolita (like a red cream soda), Inca Kola (sweet and fruity), Pony Malta (malt-based nonalcoholic drink) and Postobon brand fruity drinks, in addition to domestic colas.
The 40-seat dining room is colorfully decorated with Venezuelan and American flags, hats, photos, flowers and plants.
Elena Hart-Murillo handled most of our interview with her mother, Carolina Marino. Her stepfather, George Reyes, and brother, Albert Hart-Marino, also are involved in the restaurant.
Carolina Marino said her mother had a small restaurant in Venezuela, and the menu at El Arepaso is filled with family recipes.
“Mother came here in 1999, and for about 12 years, she cooked in assisted living centers, so she can cook almost everything,” Hart-Murillo said.
“It was always a dream of mother’s to have a Venezuelan café. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to do this; it wasn’t really planned.”
Hart-Murillo said the restaurant has developed a following of native South American and American diners.
“We knew some people from Venezuela lived here, but we didn’t realize how many until we opened the restaurant,” she said.
“Now we have people who have to come in for their daily arepas.”