ArePa George

Facebook Empanadas and the American Dream

Walking to catch the North Avenue bus, I curse myself for always being late. It’s a pleasant enough winter day, especially for Chicago. The sun is shining. Snow coats the ground. Still, the cold lingers, prodding me to zip my winter jacket as I not-so-patiently wait for the bus.

I look out the window. Remnants of what Humboldt Park used to be and what it’s becoming pass me by. There’s old buildings, businesses with bars on the windows. There’s a Family Dollar, a Burger King, and a laundromat. Newly constructed high-rise apartments, complete with balconies, overlook a park once synonymous with gang violence. A Puerto Rican restaurant and a Spanish grocery store are colorful reminders of the Latin American culture that staunchly ingrained itself in Humboldt Park long before the gentrification began to seep in. I arrive at my stop, pleased at the realization that I’ll only be a few minutes late.

I open the door to ArePa George, the warmth of the restaurant and Juan Betancourt’s smile quickly washing away the Chicago cold. Juan and I shake hands, and he points me to a table in the front, telling me to make myself at home while he grabs his sister Nathalie. As I remove my scarf, I glance around the restaurant. It’s relatively small, but comfortable. On yellow-painted walls hang colorful decorations – pictures of mountains, a painted wooden map of South America, and a Colombian flag. Upbeat Spanish music plays softly.

Colombian-inspired decorations hang on Arepa George’s bright yellow walls

Juan and Nathalie grew up in Armenia, Colombia, a small city nestled in the Andes best known for its coffee production. They spent their childhood riding horses, exploring local coffee farms, and having cookouts in the mountains. With a mom as an architect and a dad as an engineer, Juan admits that they had a very good life in Colombia, “But my mom’s dream was always to come to the U.S. so we could have ‘The American Dream’ you know?” Their parents divorced, and a few years later their mother met a Colombian man that lived in the United States. Eventually they married and in 2005, 10 year-old Nathalie and 13 year-old Juan moved to Chicago to fulfill their mother’s dream.

Not being able to imagine moving to a new country without knowing the language, I ask them if they were nervous. “No,” Juan replies, “I was excited because I always wanted to come. I used to see all the movies, like Home Alone, so I was excited to see the U.S.” He remembers going downtown Chicago for the first time and being amazed at how beautiful it was. “It was different from Colombia” he continues, “but it was nice.”

Juan adds that being a teenager, the transition was harder on him than on Nathalie. She admits to picking up English quicker than him but remembers being more shy. “I’ve always been the shy one, you know, you’re always afraid you’re going to say something wrong.” Through bilingual programs like ESL (English as a Second Language) and working as a lifeguard at the local pool, the pair picked up English quickly. “I think you just have to be thrown into it,” says Juan, “You do what you have to survive, so you do what you can.”

Years later, Juan graduated from a university in Iowa with a degree in mathematics. He returned to Chicago to look for jobs, and soon found himself teaching math at a high school in Humboldt Park. Driving through the area on his way to work, he began to notice how the area was changing, and took note. He started saving as much money as he could, remembering his dad’s dream to open a restaurant in Colombia.

Nathalie was working for the pool when she went to a Colombian restaurant for empanadas – craving the fried turnovers stuffed with meat and cheese her mother had made for her as a girl. “They were horrible,” she remembers, “They were like, frozen and had so many potatoes. They weren’t Colombian.” She vented about them on Facebook, claiming that her mother made the best empanadas. “And right away, people started asking me if she sold them. I asked my mom, and she said yes, and I just put the prices in the comments, and everybody started ordering.” The first order was sixteen empanadas for one of Nathalie’s friends. The word spread, and soon the orders grew to hundreds of empanadas at a time, all made by Juan and their mother in her home kitchen. To keep up with the demand, Nathalie started taking orders at work, texting Juan as they came in throughout the day. After work, she’d drive all over the city to deliver them. Eventually, the empanada orders grew so big they made and sold over one thousand empanadas on Saturday...and one thousand more that Sunday

A Colombian empanada stuffed with cheese and sweet plantains, served with a side of aji

After the success of the empanadas, Juan knew he was going to open a restaurant, and he started buying machines, tables, and decorations; storing them in his bedroom. Eventually, he had everything he needed to open a restaurant except a location. So he started looking. He looked for three years before settling on his current location in Humboldt Park. He had witnessed first-hand how the area was changing. It was close to downtown, and there were no Colombian restaurants in the area.

When I asked Juan what the hardest thing he faced opening his restaurant was, he hesitated before responding that leaving his job ended up being the most difficult decision. “You know when you’re comfortable with your job, your paycheck and all of those things? I thought it over and decided ‘You know what?’ I’m going to leave it, I’m going to start my own thing.” He signed his lease in Humboldt Park and shortly after opened ArePa George in 2017.

At first, it was just Juan. He answered the phone, tended the tables, cleaned, cooked, and managed the finances. He would buy the ingredients he needed each morning before the restaurant opened. At first, Nathalie only worked on weekends, facing the difficult decision her older brother had made months earlier. Her other job was a secure job, and she was in school. But in September of 2018, she made the decision to quit and start working for Juan full-time.
Glancing at each other, they both agree that it was a great decision. Nathalie quickly realized how much her brother had been doing to keep the restaurant going. Laughing in disbelief at the memory, she caught my eye before declaring, “I don’t know how he did it without me.”

Since its opening, ArePa George has done very well. Inspired by his experience as a bus-boy at Fogo de Chao, Juan wants all his customers to feel taken care of. Regulars are treated as if they’re at home and are prodded to explore new dishes as they come out. Initially, their menu was built around authentic Colombian recipes from their mother – tostones, or fried green plantains, arepas, and of course, the empanadas. But eventually, as the restaurant began to grow, so did their menu. They began noticing the number of vegan and vegetarian customers that would come in and realized that often their only vegetarian option – like many Latin American restaurants – included beans or cheese.

Brother and sister Juan and Nathalie smile in front of a map of Colombia

A few years after the Facebook empanadas, and before meeting Juan or Nathalie, I walked into ArePa George with my roommate. I was excited to try a local restaurant that had been featured in the Chicago Tribune, and she was excited to introduce me to arepas and Colombian empanadas – insisting that Colombian empanadas were much better because of their corn flour crust. And since I’d never had an arepa, she patiently explained that arepas were essentially thicker and sweeter tortillas usually filled with meat. Before looking at the menu, we agreed to split an empanada and a chicken or beef arepa – unless they had a particularly appetizing vegetarian option.

Glancing around the cheery restaurant for the first-time, we had a seat at a table near the front and picked up our menus. Empanadas came stuffed with shredded chicken or beef, cheese, plantain, or a combination of cheese and plantain, and came with a side of aji to dip them in. Our waitress, who I later learned was Nathalie, came by our table and suggested we consider the papa rellana, one of their most popular side dishes. She gushed, claiming that the papa rellena was delicious, made of breaded potato stuffed with chicken and cheese.

Beyond ordering a simple arepa with butter or cheese, the menu was filled with a variety of stuffed arepas - shredded chicken, ‘ropa vieja’ style shredded beef, colombian chorizo, or a combination of all three, combined with Colombian tomato-based creole sauce and melted cheese. I scanned to the bottom of the list. Not only did a vegetarian arepa exist, it sounded delicious.

A vegetarian arepa filled with fresh vegetables, cheese, and sweet plantains

Although non-traditional, Juan and Nathalie wanted their vegetarian arepa to reflect the flavors they grew up with. Filled with cabbage, carrots, avocado, broccoli, sweet plantains, and feta cheese, the vegetarian arepa is now the most popular arepa on the menu. After trying it  for myself, I can attest to its popularity. It overflows with crunchy, flavorful vegetables that provide a refreshing respite from a cuisine otherwise dominated by mushy, albeit flavorful beans. Sweet plantains and salty feta cheese work together smoothly, balancing and complementing the freshness of the vegetables in a way meat cannot. And despite not containing any meat, the flavors remain true to Colombia. One weekend, Juan convinced a particularly meat-loving customer to try the vegetarian arepa. Despite the fact that they had come in specifically to order the sancocho trifasico, a complex traditional soup made with not one, but three types of meat, they gave it a try. Not only were they convinced, they proclaimed that they were transformed to Colombia with one bite, and immediately ordered another.

The empanada we ordered came out proudly wearing a Colombian golden yellow crust that distinguished itself from other, lesser empanadas. Hot and fresh from the fryer, the crust was crispy, flaky and faintly sweet. The cheese enveloped the sweet plantains in a melted embrace. Green aji was served on the side, its acidity and complexity a welcome interruption from otherwise rich flavors. It was an empanada that begged you to order hundreds of it on Facebook, an empanada that coaxed Juan and Nathalie into living their American Dream.

Nathalie and Juan came to the United States because of a dream their mother had and were able to start ArePa George because of her empanada recipe. After talking to them, it’s evident how grateful they are. At one point in our conversation, I ask Nathalie how much  moving to the United States has meant to her. She pauses to think before replying, “Coming from Colombia, we’ve seen a lot of the less fortunate. Like homeless people. Or kids that have lost their father or parents due to the war that’s still going on with drugs and all of that.” She stops, glancing at Juan, and continues, “So we see that and here, I just feel so privileged to be able to eat what I want every day, you know? It just humbles you. We are very humbled to just be able to be here and have this business and be able to share our culture.”

ArePa George gets busier and busier, and eventually I feel guilty taking any more of Juan and Nathalie’s time. I order a Facebook empanada and decide to walk home, thankful that Juan and Nathalie’s American Dream tastes so delicious.

Visit:
the Restaurant
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 11 AM – 6 PM, Sunday 11 AM – 6 PM
Location: 1552 N Kedzie Ave Chicago, IL 60651
Phone: (773) 969-7945
Delivery: Grubhub, Doordash, or Postmates
Find Arepa George on Instagram, Facebook, and Yelp!

About the Author
Makala Bach is a Chicago transplant so obsessed with food she became a food scientist. She spends her days in lab daydreaming of becoming a food writer and can be found trying to convince everyone she meets that beans are underrated. Follow her on Instagram.

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