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05 November 2012

A taste of Venezuela in Memphis

So many places now share a similar story to Madison Avenue. This iconic section of the city of Memphis paints a clear picture of the entrepreneurial struggle. The famous street trolley still makes gracious stops between abandoned buildings and spaces left behind. Very few places remain open- some medical clinics, a school or two, a few restaurants.


Arepas & Salsa is one of the new kids on the block. And they have made me very very happy. Their “Open” sign lights up at night like a rebellious kid making a statement, and to go inside the restaurant is just like going back home to the Caribbean. So warm and welcoming, like your own familia. Yet, it is very much Venezuelan. Baseball is on the flat screen TV and the sweet sound of salsa vieja takes you very far from Memphis.

I ordered plantain cups expecting the Puerto Rican version made with green plantains, but instead I got the improved, Venezuelan version where the plantain is lightly sweet and filled with saucy shredded goods: shrimp, chicken, pork. If you like this appetizer, their plantain sandwich is outstanding, made with the same plantain and delicious fillings. Best ways to eat a plantain.

For the really hungry, Pabellon is the way to go. Rice, savory beans, slow-cooked shredded beef with onions and peppers, and of course, sweet plantains and small cheesy arepas. This is not a big plate of beef, however. Meat in this part of the world is meant to complement the staples of their cuisine, which are plantains, rice, beans, corn, root vegetables—ingredients that are essential in most Latin American countries, but prepared very uniquely.

Venezuelan cuisine is deeply influenced by Spain, Italy and the Mediterranean, as well as the African slaves who arrived to the country. Garlic, peppers and onions go in everything. Slow cooking and roasting are very common techniques. Sauces are very important: guasacasa, mojo, catara, tartara and even a simple sauce made with ketchup and mayonnaise. Ingredients are combined simply to offer sweet and savory contrasts. And the food is not spicy, although they have spicy sauces that could be added to a variety of dishes.

Arepas, of course, are their staple. These are not sandwiches or gorditas. (Those are great too. Don’t get me wrong.) Arepas are made with a special corn masa that resembles a very fine polenta, and are cooked like pancakes in a drop of oil.

Then, the fun begins when they are cut open to be filled with all kinds of fresh vegetables and fillings. Cheese and sauces are a big part of this recipe as well. Once assembled, there is nothing better with a very cold beer. Can you understand my excitement?

If diversity, quality and innovation is what makes a city evolve, we need more places like Arepa & Salsa. I love to see the people in my city represented in the businesses that keep it going.

And these guys are friendly as the neighbors you never had. They are fun! This weekend, for example, was my 30th birthday and I got spoiled with a dessert that I was almost too full to finish: a quesito pastel!  Half quesito, half cake. The quesito is like a lighter flan, and combined with the soft cake, it's just exquisite. I can assure you that I'll be coming here pretty often.

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