An Arepa to Remember
Traditionally skillet-cooked, arepas are now often cooked in a special device that's sort of like a waffle iron. A ball of cornmeal is placed in one of the slots, and a perfectly shaped arepa is cooked on both sides. The arepa is a wonder of taste and texture. A crunchy exterior encases the soft, moist, deliciously corny interior, which is the perfect vehicle for hot or cold stuffings.
Getting a world-class arepa in Manhattan is as easy as pie. The Caracas Arepa Bar, on East 7th Street, just east of First Avenue, has 14 kinds on the menu, and on weekends there are additional specials. It was a special that made my day last Sunday, the arepa de estofado llanero. " Llanero, I learned, literally means "plainsman," and it is the name for cowboys in Venezuela and Colombia. My cowboy stew was absolutely delicious, with a complexity of flavor and an earthiness that married so well with its arepa shell. Indeed, the stew had a veritable communion with the cornmeal center. You can keep posted on the next appearance of estofado llanero, as Caracas Arepa Bar lists the weekend specials on their website.
The other thing I fell in love with in Caracas was queso Guayanes, a mild white cheese that's soft, moist, creamy and slightly salty. I could say it's like a cross between farmer cheese and mozzarella, but that doesn't do it justice; it's more complex than that. Despite the name, it seems to be a Venezuelan specialty, and I haven't found out whether it really is Guyanese in origin*. Queso Guayanes is a common arepa filling in Venezuela, and Caracas Arepa Bar uses it as an ingredient in several variations. This time I tried the "del gato," which has fried plantains and avocado as well as queso Guayanes. The owner told me once that they get their cheese from a supplier in Miami.
Caracas Arepa Bar also makes empanadas. The Venezuelan empanada is also cornmeal-based, and it's deep fried. The empanada de cazon (shark) is especially good. A couple of arepas or an arepa and an empanada is usually sufficient for a meal.
* Note: Thanks to a reader (see comment), the origin of queso Guayanes has been clarified. The name comes from a region in southeastern Venezuela.