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.

Fresh Pot Café

So Fresh, So Clean

I stood entranced as I watched owners/chefs/spouses Blanca Mullo and Marco Garrido working some magic in their sparkling-clean kitchen, whipping up dishes from their native homeland of Ecuador. The smells of fresh herbs and spices filled the air, and when I say “fresh,” I mean just-picked-out-of-their-garden fresh. Mullo and Garrido grow mint, oregano, thyme and other ingredients in their home garden to use in their dishes and also sweeten several with local honey. You can’t get more fresh than that.

They didn’t know I was coming beforehand, so after catching them by surprise, I’m sure their kitchen is always this immaculate. This is also evidenced by their perfect 100 health score I noticed they had gotten on their last inspection. Mullo said after first immigrating to the United States she began working in housekeeping, cleaning in hotels as well as houses. I’m sure she excelled because if this restaurant is any indicator, she truly is a queen of clean in addition to Ecuadorian cuisine.

Bringing That Zero-Degrees-Latitude, Hard-Working Attitude to Chattanooga

With the equator passing through at zero degrees latitude, the Republic of Ecuador in South America is literally a translation of “Republic of Equator.” In an unassuming strip mall in the Chattanooga, Tenn., incorporated community of Hixson, at a latitude of 35.13948 degrees, Mullo and Garrido decided to open their Ecuadorian restaurant in 2014.

Mullo grew up in Quito, which is the capital of Ecuador and the country’s most populated city. When she was a child, her mother owned a grocery store that eventually also became a restaurant. She and her siblings would help her mother in the store and restaurant after school in the afternoons and do their homework in the evenings. Mullo said her mother is a very hard-working, successful and ambitious person, and she has been a major influence on her life.

Mullo married Garrido when she was 18 years old. Together they opened their own restaurant in Quito while continuing to help her mother with hers. During Mullo’s childhood and early adulthood in Ecuador, she said her life was not difficult. However, that changed with the depreciation and eventual collapse of the sucre, which was Ecuador’s currency until the year 2000.

On January 9, 2000, Ecuadorian President Jamil Mahuad declared the U.S. dollar as Ecuador’s official currency. The Ecuadorian sucre had fallen victim to rampant inflation that had increased rapidly in the preceding years, so Mahuad decided to switch the country to a more stable currency. However, this dollarization hit the country’s economy hard. Overnight, the sucre became mostly worthless and those who hadn’t already invested their sucres into U.S. dollars in advance lost most of their money.

Mullo said most common people didn’t know the switch was coming and were caught by surprise. “It disappeared from the morning to the night … One morning we had the sucre, and the next morning it didn’t exist,” she said. “Nobody knew [ahead of time] except the government and the banks. The businesses became broke.”

Then-President Mahuad faced civil unrest with demonstrations by the public, and a military coup forced him out of office on January 22, 2000, just 13 days after the currency switch. Mahuad’s Vice President, Gustavo Noboa, was then appointed as Ecuadorian President, but he continued with the dollarization of the economy Mahuad had started. Because mostly only the government and the banks knew of the official switch and it hit the general public without warning, there was some shady business going on with embezzlement of U.S. dollars and currency exchanges from some in government and the upper classes who were tipped off ahead of time. The lower and middle classes were hit the hardest with the surprise, though the whole country suffered to varying degrees with the decline of the sucre.

Mullo said her life after dollarization wasn’t terrible, it was just that their options dissipated after the sucre went away. Her family was not wanting for anything important like water and food. She realized that she had it better than other people in Ecuador because she lived in the city, and many Ecuadorians in rural areas had it much worse. While more difficult after dollarization, her life continued on and she did the best she could working hard during that Ecuadorian recession at the beginning of the millennium.

Three years later, in 2003, Garrido got a call about an opportunity to come to the U.S. for a restaurant job in Chattanooga and decided to take it. Mullo followed two months later after their daughter finished school. As Mullo worked her aforementioned housekeeping jobs before moving on to join Garrido in Chattanooga’s restaurant industry, continuing their culinary craft and supporting their daughter in college, they were brewing what would eventually become the Fresh Pot Café. They had plenty to bring to the table with their Ecuadorian culinary experience and knowledge of running their own business in this new location approximately 35 degrees latitude from where their culinary journey began.

Mullo said: “Chattanooga was the first city that we visited in the U.S. and it has been a beautiful experience. We were in Chattanooga for 10 years before we decided to open this restaurant. I love the city. It was a challenge, but we’ve embraced the difficulties and successes of our journey. We have been blessed. The people of Chattanooga seem to like Latino cuisine. We’ve had guests come from all over the country from Nashville to Chicago [in addition to being] so well-received by the city. We like to represent the Latino community as people who are very capable of success. We show that Latino immigrants come to this country, work hard and move forward.”

Mullo has frequently gone back to Ecuador to visit family, especially her mother. And while in Ecuador, she gathers traditional spices and other ingredients, bringing them back to add to the Fresh Pot Café’s authenticity of their Ecuadorian dishes. However, recent trips have not been so pleasant due to her mother’s illness. “Because my mother is very important to me, she’s on my mind quite a bit,” Mullo said. “Being far from her side breaks my heart.”

Because Ecuador is on the U.S. dollar as their official currency now, visiting Ecuador is even easier than most countries for U.S. tourists because there is no currency exchange. The bills are the exact same bills used in the U.S., though some coins are a bit different while holding the same monetary value. Ecuador is a beautiful country worth visiting for the sights, history, culture and food — and if you’re interested in seeing that southern/northern hemisphere equator water rotation trick. However, for Chattanoogans, we don’t have to go to Ecuador to get authentic Ecuadorian food. Mullo and Garrido have brought it to us, so I roamed over to Hixson to check it out.

Roamin’ with Roman Around Ecuadorian Cuisine in Hixson

Everything about this restaurant is low-key until you step inside: from the suburban strip mall it’s located in, to the name of the restaurant, which sounds like a coffee shop. It’s been going strong for about six years, and drawing in quite a crowd with a lot of positive buzz, despite its unobvious appearance as a restaurant that serves authentic Ecuadorian food.

Upon walking in, though, the Ecuadorian pride shines throughout. In addition to bringing ingredients from Ecuador for their dishes, Mullo and Garrido have a display case in front which showcases colorful keepsakes from their homeland. Artwork and photos from Ecuador line the walls along with an apron embroidered with the recipe for seco de pollo, an authentic Ecuadorian chicken stew. The Latino music playing through the sound system adds further immersion to the restaurant's ambiance.

Our server was very friendly, attentive and helpful with any questions we had about the menu. It was also nice of Mullo to talk to us about her life and her restaurant, and let me see the kitchen, even after we showed up unannounced.

The wall menu is written in yellow, blue and red chalk, which are the main colors of the Ecuadorian flag, along with the green and white on the coat of arms. However, the menu is quite eclectic and features some traditional North American café fare and pastas in addition to the authentic Ecuadorian cuisine. Being skilled chefs, they can cook anything and make it fresh and delicious, but the Ecuadorian menu was the treasure I was seeking.

Appetizers

To begin, and throughout my meal, I enjoyed their traditional Ecuadorian drink made of carrots, pineapple, passion fruit, oats and brown sugar. Oats are a base of several Ecuadorian drinks called colada de avena, refresco de avena or sometimes just “quaker” (named after the oat brand). This refreshing drink was nicely sweet, but not overly so, balanced by the oats and the earthiness of the carrots.

My partner and I ordered two appetizers: the ceviche de camaron (shrimp ceviche) and the yuca frita (fried yuca).

Ceviche is common throughout Latin American cuisine with some variations, and this Ecuadorian shrimp version was an excellent one. The basis of curing the raw shrimp in a powerful acidic bath of lemon juice, tomato and onion perfectly “cooked” these plump shrimp to their proper pinkness and tender consistency. The shrimp were deveined with precision and each bite exploded with these strong acidic flavors and cilantro. Not only were they prepared without literal heat, but mild without capsaicin spicy heat as well.

A lemon wedge was included to add more citric acid if desired, and a couple of avocado wedges also marinated in this pool party. Crunchy fried plantains were served to the side with a crispy outer breading exterior and a firm interior. These medallions were prepared savory without much sweetness and spiced but not spicy. They were an excellent vehicle for eating the shrimp or for sopping up the sauce.

Next, I tried their fried yuca. Also called cassava, yuca is a starchy tuber that is popular in Ecuador and throughout the tropics — the starch can also be extracted to make tapioca. This yuca dish had a crispy fried exterior with pillowy-soft interior layers. It was served with a side of chipotle mayo for dipping to add some savory creaminess and a smidge of heat.

This was a delicious dish any french fry lover would devour. It’s also available with pico de gallo on the side if mayo is “no bueno” to you, but even the most hardened mayonnaise hater could enjoy this emulsion with its powerful punch of aromatics.

Main Course

We sampled four main entrées from the Ecuadorian menu: the arroz colorado (rice pilaf), the seco de carne (beef stew), the encocado de mariscos (coconut seafood) and the fritada (fried pork).

Pretty much all of the dishes were mild as far as capsaicin pepper spiciness, but a fresh, house-made hot sauce was available that packed some heat. Its tomato, pepper, onion and vinegar base had some viscosity to help it stick to foods, and it would be good with most of their dishes for those who want to add an extra kick.

The arroz colorado had some kick of its own and was the spiciest dish I sampled, though it wasn’t super spicy, and the hot sauce went well with this dish to crank it up even more. Its tomato-based sauce was similar to the hot sauce but with a robust presence of cumin. As is standard with rice pilaf dishes, the rice was cooked in broth, proteins, veggies, herbs and spices to fully impart each grain with maximum flavor.

I had the chicken and sausage version. It’s also available with shrimp, but I had shrimp with two other dishes. The sausage had a smoky flavor with a presence of garlic, and this sliced pork link was sautéed with onions to crisp the casing and spread its flavor to the rest of the dish. The chicken, rice, bell peppers, carrots and peas all intermingled together with the sausage, onions, broth and sauce as the dish was cooked into its fluffy pile of goodness.

Medium-boiled egg, raw tomato slices and naturally sweet fried plantains were served to the side and nicely complemented the pilaf. The plantain chunks were not breaded and prepared much sweeter than the medallions I had earlier with the ceviche. They had a soft interior, much like the consistency of their cousin, the banana, with the fried outside caramelized with their sugars.

I was considering getting the seco de pollo (chicken stew) because of the recipe on the apron I talked about earlier, but I was in a beefy mood that day and got the seco de carne instead — though I will definitely come back to try the seco de pollo.

This was a steamy stew with tender cuts of beef braised in a tomato-based sauce that had strong notes of cumin and mild heat. Caramelized onions, celery, bell peppers, carrots and peas were stewed with the beef and provided a pleasing array of flavors in addition to a wide spectrum of colors. It also had a large chunk of potato, which soaked in the stew’s piquant essence as it softened.

White rice was served to the side to further soak up every last drop of this rich stew broth. The dish also included lettuce and avocado — many of the Ecuadorian dishes came with avocado, which is great because avocado is “delicioso.”

While I enjoyed all of the dishes I tasted, I think my personal favorite was the encocado de mariscos (coconut seafood). This dish is available with salmon or shrimp, or both, so of course I chose both.

The salmon and shrimp were both cooked perfectly juicy with the salmon delicately flaking with my fork. They were smothered in a luscious coconut sauce that was very creamy with a bit of sweetness and shredded coconut topping it off. I really like how coconut pairs with seafood, which both geographically and gastronomically makes sense because the coconut palm tree grows so close to the ocean. Coconut goes very well with both light seafood flavors such as shrimp, as well as the stronger flavors of oily fish like salmon. This sauce was glorious and would be good on pretty much anything, so fortunately there was plenty to go around with the sides.

My starchy buddy, the yuca, made another appearance in this dish. Unlike the appetizer, this side was mashed yuca shaped into cakes. Strong flavors of garlic and onion were cooked into this buttery mash, pan fried with a slight crispiness on the top and bottom. They were very smooth, light and airy like a cloud, and saturating them with the coconut cream sauce was heavenly.

The broccoli florets were cooked until they were softened a bit while still maintaining their deep green and nutrients. I used these floret clusters to mop up any last remnants of the sauce so I wouldn’t be tempted to lick my plate.

Last but certainly not least was the fritada dish. The pork had a juicy, flavorful interior that was perfectly cooked to be tender to the bite with a nice crispy outside. This is done traditionally by boiling the pork in water, onion, garlic and spices, letting the water reduce until it all evaporates and the fat starts to render, and then finishing it off by frying in the pork fat. It was served with an abundance of sides, including pico de gallo and avocado, that made this dish a delectable adventure.

The first side I tried was what they called “giant white corn” on the menu. This corn was made “giant” by boiling in an alkali to puff the kernels out. In Ecuador and other South American countries, this is called “mote,” and it is similar to “hominy” in Central and North America. Making the corn alkaline gives a more delicate consistency and flavor than regular corn, which they then amped up the flavor with a chile powder mixture.

With the fritadas being the stars of this dish, the co-stars were definitely the llapingachos, which are Ecuadorian potato pancakes. These had a silky mashed potato interior with no lumps, mixed with cheese, onion and spices, and a fried crust on the exterior. They had strong flavor of onion and annatto, with the latter also giving them their bright yellow hue. The cheese gave a bit of creaminess and there was also a slight tinge of sweetness.

Moving to the sweetest end of the spectrum of sides was the naturally sweet fried plantain. This was the same plantain side that was on the rice pilaf dish I talked about earlier. It provided a great interplay of savory and sweet to give this dish a kind of dessert in itself. Speaking of dessert ...

Desserts

To wrap up the meal, we tried the bread pudding and crème brûlée. While neither dish is necessarily Ecuadorian, these were the only two desserts offered when I was there.

However, widely consumed throughout much of the world, bread pudding is truly a universal dessert, crossing all class and cultural boundaries — albeit with different ingredients and preparation methods. Fresh Pot Café’s version was flavored with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg in its warm bread mixture. Topped with smooth vanilla ice cream and fresh-sliced strawberry to cool things off, it was a decadent yet humble dessert that really hit the spot.

I took the crème brûlée to go because I was so full I was about to explode, but I had a taste while I was there. It was a velvety smooth vanilla custard with the top caramelized into a slightly crunchy crystal candied sugar layer. Fresh strawberry slices were served on top.

Of the two desserts, this was more straightforward with its creamy vanilla flavor, a less complex and more, well, “vanilla” dessert compared to the bread pudding, but tasty all the same for those who want something simple and sugary. It was a sweet ending to this experience with Fresh Pot Café’s very sweet and talented chefs/owners.

Final Thoughts

I was very pleased with my experience at Fresh Pot Café, not only to eat the food, but also to meet the owners and learn about their immigration story. They are such nice and hard-working people who are giving Chattanooga a gift by bringing their cuisine and culture from their homeland, and the city is very lucky to have them here. They opened the Fresh Pot Café while I was living in Chicago, so this was my first experience at this restaurant after moving back. There will certainly be many more visits to come.

Visit:
Fresh Pot Café
5425 TN-153
Hixson, TN 37343
(423) 805-3773
Monday–Saturday: 11 a.m.–9 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m.–3 p.m.

About the Author

Roman Flis is a writer who focuses on food, culture, history and folklore with his “Roamin’ with Roman” articles. You can find more on his website romanflis.com, follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and email him at roaminwithroman@gmail.com.

Sabores del Sur

“I hope my parents are proud of me,” pauses Chef Guisell Osorio of Sabores del Sur as a tear swells in her eye. “I know they are”, she then reassures herself. Guisell left Chile at 21 to pursue her dream in the “Land of Opportunity”: the United States. Ever since she was a child, Guisell loved to cook and prepare food. Building off of her grandma’s homemade recipes, Guisell created what is now a well-known South American bistro in Walnut Creek, a suburb of San Francisco. Her family was nothing less but proud. Last year, before her father passed away in Chile, he asked Guisell’s mom to get a special cookbook stuffed deep in the closet which was filled with his own recipes. He asked that the book be sent to Guisell. With this gesture he wanted to show his love and support for Guisell's passion. “If only his writing was a bit more clear”, laughs Guisell as she reminisces about her parents.

Sabores del Sur, which means "Flavors from the South”, is located in the business area near the Pleasant Hill BART station. A flow of business customers come here for lunch from nearby office buildings. Once inside, the place envelops you like a cozy blanket. Traditional and modern Latin music plays subtly in the background. The restaurant is  well lit, with comfortable chairs accompanying each table. At the far corner of the restaurant, an exotic collection of Chilean objects are put on display, two of those delicate antiques being Guisell’s grandma’s old sewing machine and telephone.

As I looked around the unique restaurant, I noticed that only women worked behind the counter. I quickly found out that almost every one of those women had children and Chef Guisell ensures that each employee is able to balance family and work. “I make sure they are paid fairly and are treated well.”

Guisell is often the person who takes your order. If you are there for the first time, she will give you several recommendations. You are treated as a special guest.

The menu has about 4-5 choices in every category, which makes it simple and easy to choose. In addition, there are a lot of familiar international names on the menu. Chile’s multi-cultural heritage had a significant influence on its cuisine. German influence can be seen in the sausages like Prietas, Chilean-style blood sausage served with potatoes. The traditional Shepherd's Pie (Pastel de Choclo) has a Chilean twist by using a summer corn crust rather than potatoes.

Scanning the menu intently, I decided that I was craving a meaty sandwich. Guisell was at the register and recommended Churrasco (Grilled steak with tomato, avocado & aioli), but I had my heart set on Pan con Chicharrón (Peruvian-style fried pork with sweet potato & onion salad).

Interestingly, Pan Con Chicharron is traditionally eaten for breakfast, but I couldn’t even finish half for lunch - it was so filling! The flavorful sandwich creates sweet, salty, and tangy flavors by combining pork, sweet potato and red onion relish. Chicharron is a term used for cooking meat, typically pork, by braising and frying to create a tender, but also crispy piece of meat. The sandwich is made on a traditional bread called Marraqueta, Chile’s version of a French baguette.

To go with my sandwich, I wanted to order a soup as well. There were 3 soups on the menu, but Aguadito de Pollo (Peruvian-style organic chicken & rice soup) sounded best at that moment. What made the particular soup very unusual was the sudden, bursting sweet corn flavor. In Peru, they call this soup “levanta-muertos” which means “wakes up the dead” because of its restoring and soothing qualities.

My mom ordered Traditional Chilean empanada since this was the only traditional food we knew before coming to the restaurant. Chileans eat empanadas at any time of the year, but they are most popular during Fiestas Patrias holidays to celebrate Chile’s independence. Every culture seems to have it’s version of these turnover pies (Calzones, Pierogies), yet the Chilean version was definitely a new kick of unique. Empanadas came to South America with the Spanish 500 years ago, and every South American culture has transformed the traditional empanada to their own liking. We decided on the Steak Empanada which was very flavorful due to the exotic Chilean spices and “caldúa”. In Chile, they say the juicier the better. The dough kept the whole ensemble together, making it smooth and able to be cut easily, but at the same time, the empanada didn’t crumble or fall part.

For dessert, we had to try Chef Guiselle’s famous Alfajores - crumbly butter cookies, filled with a thick layer of creamy dulce de leche caramel and dusted in white powdered sugar. Originally, the Spaniards acquired Alfajores from the Middle East. The word “alfajor” actually comes from an old Arabic word that stands for “excellent” or “luxurious”. After Alfajores were brought to South America, every country in the continent made its own version of these cookies, becoming local specialties filled with dulce de le leche, jam, or chocolate, and sometimes coated in a sugar glaze. Chef Guisell’s Alfajores were irresistible and I munched on both cookies even though the second one was meant for someone else.

A lot of different people come to this place: families with South American background, business people from nearby offices, and cultural foodies. As I waited for my order, I noticed one family ordering a red drink poured form a large glass jar. I was curious to try it. It turned out to be chicha morada, a beverage prepared by boiling purple corn with various fruits added in and a pinch of cinnamon along with a few cloves. To me it was delicious and refreshing. This drink is considered to have many health benefits being packed with antioxidants.

About Chef Guisell

Chef Guisell was born in Santiago de Chile in a very large family. She grew up during the 80s under the difficult military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Rules were very strict, an example being that 8 p.m. was the curfew for all people, adults and children. “That’s why people had parties at night”, Guisell exclaimed, “If you didn’t leave on time, you were stuck at someone’s house for the rest of the night, so what’s a better way to spend the evening then a party” It was also a time of “Macho community”, meaning that the girls couldn’t go anywhere without a male chaperone.

When Guisell was 17, she moved to the US with her parents for 2 years and attended a high school in the East Bay. She immediately fell in love with the feeling of freedom of the “Land of Opportunity”. As the family went back to Chile, Guisell promised herself that she would come back.

Guisell returned to the Bay Area 2 years later. The only problem was that she had a mere $27 in her pocket, yet she also held a dream to build her own business. After several rounds of jobs, she slowly began to create her informal business, Sabores del Sur, selling her favorite South American foods to friends and family.

As she developed her business on her own, she found it hard keeping in touch with her family. Her family didn’t have a phone in Chile until the late 90s. In order to speak with her parents, Guisell had to call the community center at a specific time each week. The person from the community center in Chile would run out and call Guisell’s mom. Every minute of the conversation was precious.

To get the authentic recipes from Chile, Guisell would often call her grandmother, who happened to be the only family member in Chile with a phone. At the sky high cost of $2 per minute, she would write down the tips from her grandma and later incorporate the recipes in the building of her restaurant. Many dishes today are based on the same magic recipes from Guisell's abuelita.

But it was not just the mysterious deliciousness of grandma’s recipes. Guisell told us, “One day, I realized that I had it in me, I had a gift of being able to make delicious foods and a way of making people happy with it! I am very blessed because I do what I love. My restaurant is like my living room and I have guests every day. I love it!” Guiselle prepared and built her restaurant for a full year before officially opening it in 2004. Prior to the opening, she did a lot of research, testing, and took what seemed like an infinite amount of culinary and business classes.

“Was it hard building your own restaurant as a woman?”, I asked. “I never thought or assumed that things would be different because I am a woman”, replied Guisell, “ I never thought I would achieve less or could do less. I thought of myself as a person with a dream and I knew that I would work hard, do the right thing, and I would get there.”

Guisell thinks of herself as being very fortunate. When she first started, programs such as La Cocina and Women’s Initiative took her under their wings as a talented entrepreneur and provided commercial kitchen space, industry expertise and other resources for her success.

La Cocina is an incubator for aspiring working class, food entrepreneurs with a mission to improve equity in business ownership for women, immigrants, and people of color. According to La Cocina, “Women account for only 33% of business owners nationwide and still make 46-75 cents for every dollar their white, male counterparts make”.

The other secret for her success? “I always treat those around me with respect, and in return they respect me”, said Guisell, “and I always ask questions. That’s how I learn. When I was little, my aunts would say, ‘do you always have to ask questions, Guisell?’ And I still do.”

In addition, Guisell always keeps researching and learning ways to improve her restaurant. She keeps a journal of ideas that lessons from other accomplished business people and chefs. “There is always something to learn,'' she stated.

Chef Guisell has always been a positive contributor to the community. Sabores del Sur supports Fair Trade, Locally Grown and Buy Local Programs. “I believe in giving back, and I have always lived by this principle”, shared Guisell. When Guisell was just starting out, she would give back by volunteering at the AIDs Foundation and Breast Cancer Foundation events by Cheering, helping set up and clean up after.

Guisell is especially passionate about Chilean Teletón, a charity event held yearly since 1978, which raises funds to help children with developmental disabilities. “This event cut across political divides and got our country together. It helped us create opportunities for children and their families that are often struggling”. Considering herself very blessed, Guisell says she started asking people to donate to Chilean Teleton instead of giving gifts on her birthday. Sometimes during Christmas, she organizes dinners for friends and family and asks guests to contribute to Teleton as a donation in order to attend her event.

It's easy to tell that Chef Guisell has the strength of an iron fist and a soft kind hard for everyone in need. After visiting “Sabores del Sur” , I felt like I had visited a friend in South America, someone who truly cared about me and wanted to make sure my mom and l felt comfortable and ate well. I hope to come back to her place soon with my friends so that they become a part of this experience too.

Visit:
Sabores del Sur
3003 Oak Rd #105,
Walnut Creek, CA 94597

Mrs. Potato Restaurant – Brazilian Potato House

Mrs. Potato a Brazilian potato house

To wander inside of Mrs. Potato, a Brazilian potato house tucked into Southwest Orlando, you’d never imagine from the modest decor and cozy atmosphere that this restaurant was showcased in an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives when Guy Fieri chose Orlando as his featured “Flavortown” in 2017.

carne seca rosti potato with Brazilian cream cheese

Carne Seca

“I hope you’re hungry,” says chef-owner Rafaela Cabede as a carne seca rosti potato with Brazilian cream cheese is placed in front of me, the server pausing briefly with a big smile to see my reaction to this ultimate comfort food. The rosti potato, Brazil’s version of the classic potato pancake, is Mrs. Potato’s signature dish, with filling options that not only represent the traditional Brazilian flavors that Rafaela grew up with, but also Philly cheesesteak, broccoli and cheese, and other flavors that remind Americans of home as well.

“I’m happy to share my culture, but I want to respect your culture as well,” says Rafaela as she politely watches me groan over the crispy, buttery potatoes and the saltiness of the meat. A creamy, house-made garlic sauce and a spicy Brazilian pepper sauce are served on the side for additional flavoring, but the rosti is heavenly in its own right.

The carne seca, or dried beef, rosti potato has a yellow star next to it on the Mrs. Potato menu, indicating that Guy Fieri sampled and put his restauranteur stamp of approval on it. It has become the most popular menu item since the episode aired, but while Rafaela says she was overjoyed to have been chosen for the TV show, she was also nervous for one main reason — she had no formal culinary or restaurant education.

Rafaela Cabede

Chef Rafaela with Carne Seca

“All I have is a passion for cooking. I have always cooked for my family and for my friends,” says Rafaela. “Some people go running, some go to the gym. I go to the kitchen. Cooking is my way of telling people ‘I love you.’

She grew up in Rio de Janeiro, where Brazilian potato houses are a mainstay of Brazilian comfort cuisine. It was in Rio where Rafaela’s mother met her stepfather, an American engineer from California who was in the country working on a project with his company. The two were married after a year and a half, and after her stepfather’s project was complete, the family moved to California when Rafaela was 11.

She stayed in the San Francisco Bay area for about three years, and when Rafaela was about 14, she and her family went back to Brazil, where she finished her education and ended up getting a professional degree in teaching. Rafaela enriched the lives of both children and adults during her career, but as the political situation in Brazil became more volatile, she knew she had to make a decision to secure a better future for her daughter, Bruna.

In 2010, when her daughter was 10 years old, Rafaela made the important decision to come back to the San Francisco/Bay area. With her teaching career left behind her in Brazil, Rafaela’s dream to open a potato house began to take the forefront.

“The concept of a Brazilian potato house is very common in Brazil. But when I told other people my dream that I wanted to open a Brazilian potato house, they would look at me and say, ‘What!?’” a Brazilian Potato House? she said. “Potatoes are international. I don’t know one culture that doesn’t have them. Like when you play cards and a wild card goes with anything, potatoes go well with anything.”

But Rafaela soon found that realizing her dream might not be possible in San Francisco.

“I couldn’t find quality Brazilian ingredients in California for my Brazilian potato house. It was like being an artist and having your brushes and tools taken away. I wasn’t feeling it,” she says.

The strong Brazilian culture and more accessible and diverse food markets of Orlando, Florida appealed to Rafaela, and shortly after, she relocated to The City Beautiful. But although her dream to open a potato house was just as alive and strong as ever, she knew she wasn’t ready yet.

“I didn’t know anything about restaurants. Everything I knew about it was what I had seen on TV,” she says, laughing.

Rafaela decided to begin her foray into the restaurant industry by starting at the beginning and applying at Brio Tuscan Grille at Orlando’s Millenia Mall. She did not yet have the necessary experience to be a server, so she began as a hostess and used the position as an opportunity to learn.

“Whenever I got the opportunity to go into the kitchen, I would ask them, ‘Why are you doing that?’ and I was probably the most annoying person but they would explain it to me and I learned about consistency, portion control, temperature control...I saw someone putting hot chicken into the refrigerator and asked why because my mom had always told me I would break the fridge if I put hot things in it,” she says. “They told me about getting the chicken down to a certain temperature in a certain amount of time to keep it safe from bacteria.”

Rafaela’s tenacity and determination earned her a place in Brio’s server course after just four months with the company, which was unheard of at the time. At the end of the course, she and three other potential servers were tested by having to serve the General Manager and other senior positions at the restaurant as though they were everyday customers, and Rafaela says it is the most difficult test she has ever taken to date.

“One of them would ask for water with no ice, one of them would ask for water with ice and lemon, and we had to memorize the ingredients for everything on the menu so one of them would claim to have an allergy and ask if a certain ingredient was in a dish,” she said.

Of the four people who took that final test, only three passed — and Rafaela was one of them. In the four years that she stayed with Brio, she quickly worked her way up from server to closer to team leader while continuing to ask questions from the experts around her and using every opportunity to learn.

“From customer service to cleaning to answering review, I’m so thankful for that. That was my big school,” she says.

Now ready to realize her dream, Rafaela opened the first location of Mrs. Potato in 2014, in a small kiosk on International Drive — one of the most popular tourist destinations in Orlando.

“We had four flavors on the menu when we first began,” she explains, “and everything we made was to pay the bills. What’s for dinner? Let’s have a potato. Every single day I would eat a potato because that’s what I could afford.”

As for the name Mrs. Potato, Rafaela says that was a result of sudden inspiration.

“I wanted a name that would speak for itself, and ‘Rafaela’s Potato House’ wouldn’t really do that. The drawer was drawing as I was speaking, and I thought ‘How about Mr. Potato?’ but realized that my husband can’t fry an egg and I’m the chef!”

happy-looking female potato character

Mrs. Potato was born, a happy-looking female potato character with one hand on her hip and the other holding a giant wooden spoon, ready to prepare your order in her chef’s hat and apron. Mrs. Potato has also become a nickname for Rafaela, and within just a year of opening the business, word had already spread about the new potato house in town and the little kiosk on International Drive was featured in Orlando Magazine.

Mrs. Potato Restaurant

By 2016, Rafaela was able to move to her current location, which offered her the ability to upgrade from just a few outside picnic tables to a true restaurant experience. The popularity of her dishes continued to grow, and Mrs. Potato was soon visited by the local Fox 35 TV station.

But although her business was gaining traction, Rafaela’s daughter, Bruna, was getting closer to college age, and Rafaela was worried about being able to send her to her school of choice — the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Mrs. Potato Restaurant

“How could I have the story of bringing her over here for a better life and then have to tell her that she wouldn’t be able to go to school?” she said.

Their lives changed when Guy Fieri came to town.

“He asked me where my daughter was, and I said, ‘She’s out front.’ He said, ‘I want to meet her’ so he went out there and he said to her, ‘We’re doing this for you.’”

Bruna is now 19 years old and attending the University of Florida for International Affairs, an achievement that Rafaela knows she could not have achieved without Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Although the Food Network recognition has not changed or defined Rafaela or Mrs. Potato, the success that the restaurant has experienced since the episode aired is a large part of their story.

“I never imagined this,” says Rafaela, speaking about the 300% increase in business that the restaurant has seen and the Yelp awards, magazine features and autographed Guy Fieri poster that adorn the dining room wall.

The staff at Mrs. Potato, Brazilian Potato House which started with just one person in addition to Rafaela, is now a team of 20.

“They’re not just 20 employees. These are 20 families and 20 immigrants who have the same dreams that I did,” she says. “I think the American dream is still possible for people who work hard and are decent and who respect the culture. I don’t want to impose my culture; I want to share it.”

Banana Crunchy Roll

Before I knew what was happening, Rafaela whispered a few words in Portuguese to one of her staff, and in a few minutes, a surprise dessert was put on the table — a cheesecake and banana crunchy roll, served with soft vanilla ice cream and homemade dulce de leche sauce.

When I revealed that I’d eaten the entire carne seca potato because I couldn’t have leftovers due to being on the keto diet, Rafaela laughed a deep, hearty belly laugh, and a single spoon was placed at the table for me, because I was her guest.

Visit:
Mrs. Potato
4550 S. Kirkman Road, Orlando, Florida 32811
407-290-0991

Author: Becky Greiner 
Becky is based in Orlando, Florida, and jumps at any opportunity to combine writing, people, and food. She has been writing professionally for 16 years and can most often be found on her patio with a cup of strong coffee and a book with a weird title.

Café Azul

Café Azul

When I imagine the life of a restaurant owner I envision daily slogs of hard work and very little personal or family time. Many chefs and industry workers lament how hard it can be to achieve a healthy work/life balance working in restaurants. But Monica Serrano and Mickey Torrealba have successfully figured out a formula that puts family first. Their restaurant, Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer, located in the heart of the Hyattsville Arts District, is a true multigenerational, family run business. Their success can be attributed to many factors; timing, location and business model, expert industry knowledge, but above all, delicious homemade Venezuelan food.

Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer: In the heart of the Hyattsville Arts District

Monica Serrano was born and raised in the Washington DC area and went to college at the nearby University of Maryland in College Park. Her father grew up in Alicante, Spain and her mother in Colombia. Her husband, Mickey Torrealba, is Venezuelan but like so many of his compatriots, he left his troubled home country and Monica and Mickey ended up meeting and falling in love in Puerto Rico. But without family close by, Monica knew that she wanted to come back to her hometown to put down roots. She figured that a college town with a constant supply of hungry customers would be a great place to open a restaurant. Plus, she recognized that the area was still a largely untapped treasure.

Located just over the border of Washington DC, the communities along the Route 1 corridor in Maryland like Hyattsville and College Park are vibrant communities in their own right but also conveniently located to downtown DC.  They offer the comradery and charm of a small town but with the walkability, diversity and vibrancy of a city. Add a relatively affordable housing stock, large detached homes with big yards and a commercial retail center, and this area has all the right ingredients for growth. Today, the steady influx of new residents and the thriving small business and restaurant scene are evidence that Hyattsville is booming.

When Monica was a child, her father successfully ran two high-end Spanish eateries in nearby Bethesda, MD. She saw first-hand how hard running a restaurant can be and what it took to be successful. She applied the lessons from her father’s success to Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer. Mickey and Monica prefer not to have a space that’s too large. Larger restaurants need more customers and staff to serve them. Plus, preparing larger amounts of food is harder to control for quality and consistency. Although they wanted a cozy spot where people feel welcome to sit down and savor their food, the couple knew that offering table service would increase overhead expenses significantly. Instead, patrons order their food at the counter. They also wisely keep the menu small and manageable, allowing them to deliver only the freshest and highest quality food.

Café Azul

A cozy interior where patrons can enjoy their food

Café Azul

Venezuelan Pride on Display

Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer is unique in that the café is located just below Monica and Mickey’s home in one of the first new development projects to spur growth in Hyattsville. Live/work units were once common small business models, particularly in urban areas, but they fell out of favor in the US with the rise of the suburbs. They can still be found more frequently in cities throughout Latin America and Europe, but they are starting to pop up in the US again in conjunction with the urban revitalization happening all across the country. When the Arts District development in Hyattsville was built in 2007, it included a handful of these units with storefront retail space facing the busy, commuter artery of Route 1 and two levels of living space above. Some owners lease out their commercial spaces but others took the opportunity to open their own small businesses right where they live.

There are a few benefits to this model. First, it allows families to work with their children by their side instead of having to commute to a separate place of business and pay for childcare. It’s more cost effective as housing and business costs are bundled together. It also means that since Monica and Mickey own their building instead of lease it, their business costs don’t go up. In fact, they are accruing equity. Since they opened the restaurant in 2009, the cost of real estate has increased steadily in Hyattsville. In a rapidly gentrifying metropolitan area like DC, rising rent is one of the most common reasons why restaurants close their doors but for Monica and Mickey, this isn’t a concern.

In addition to urbanization, the current fast-casual dining trend is another social factor that is working in the family’s favor. Americans want food that is affordable and quick, but still healthy, fresh and delicious. Particularly in the DC area, we also want our restaurants to be as diverse as our population. Monica and her father acknowledge that the fancy, sit-down Spanish restaurants they once owned, and that were so popular two decades ago, might not be as easy to keep afloat today. But Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer has timed the trend of casual dining just right and Hyattsville is the kind of laid back community that welcomes a diversity of cuisine in a casual setting.

Mouth Watering Menu Options

Spend a little time in the restaurant and it becomes clear that the focus on family is the main priority for Mickey and Monica. They have three children ranging in age from 9- to 4-years-old who bustle in and out of the restaurant. It’s clear that they feel as if the café is an extension of their home. The kids might help out by taking a few orders and cleaning some tables, but then they can run upstairs to finish their homework. Monica’s mother and father also regularly stay with them and help out with both the kids and the restaurant. They benefit from her father’s years of experience in the restaurant industry, plus he loves to chat with the customers.

After putting in many long hours upon first opening the café, Monica and Mickey made the decision to close two days a week so they can rest and have quality time with their children, family, and friends. They also close for a month in the summer. Since they believe in teaching their children through experiences, they are committed to making time for them to travel, play and explore. Monica took her daughter to Spain last year to experience where her grandfather grew up. She already has plans to take her to Colombia this summer. Unfortunately, the family won’t be able to visit their father’s homeland anytime soon given the current political unrest. It makes Monica sad to think that they might never see the country where their father was born, where they have roots and where some of their family members are still living. But the restaurant helps to keep their connection to Venezuela strong.

Café Azul

Images of Caracas

Café Azul

Dancing Devil Mask from a Venezuelan religious festival

Monica and Mickey are also very close to the large, robust Catholic community in Hyattsville. They both grew up within the Church attending private Catholic schools and wanted to raise their children in that same tradition. Monica and Mickey’s family attend St. Jerome’s Catholic Church and their children go to St. Jerome’s private Catholic school. St. Jerome’s is a top-rated Catholic school and it is walkable from their home. Their church and school community have supported them during challenging times, and Monica and Mickey show their appreciation by giving back. Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer donates meals to new moms who have just given birth in their community. They donate a meal a week, on average. The personal connection with their community and the loyal support they offer keeps the business thriving.

Mickey and Monica bought in a great location; in the heart of the community that is synonymous with home and belonging for them. They bought at a great time; when the area was just starting to be recognized as a destination. Their restaurant industry experience led them to make wise choices in organizing the café. But none of that would matter if the food were not delicious. That is what keeps people coming back. Mickey is the chef and he clearly takes pride and care in preparing the food from his home country. Venezuelan food has become more common in the DC area over the years. Arguably the most well-known dish is the arepa. And arepas are front and center at Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer.

Chicken and Avocado Arepa

Café Azul

Arepas are like thick, corn tortillas that are made with cornmeal and cooked on a skillet. They can be stuffed with all kinds of delicious things. Most of the fillings offered at Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer are the most popular found in Venezuela. Arepas can be filled with shredded beef, chicken or pork as well as beans, cheese, vegetables, and plantains. One of my personal favorites is chicken with avocado. The chicken is prepared as a cold chicken salad with mayonnaise and creamy avocado stuffed inside a warm, crispy corn arepa. It is decadent. Arepas are traditionally made with butter but Mickey will make them without for customers who are dairy free. The secret to getting the arepas crispy on the outside and soft and pillowy on the inside is to make sure that the cornmeal is well mixed and the skillet is properly heated. When I asked Monica if there is a filling that is popular in Venezuela but that might not go over well here for Americans, she suggested fish. Indeed, I haven’t come across a fish-filled arepa in the DC area yet, but I would definitely give it a try if I did. And a tip if you’re trying an arepa for the first time; you might be given a knife and fork, but you should really just dive into it like you’re eating a hamburger.

Sweet and briny cheese cachapa

As mouthwatering as the arepas are, it was the cachapa that I couldn’t stop thinking about. A cachapa is a corn pancake made with only fresh corn and a little flour, no corn meal like the arepa. The sweet corn goodness of this pancake is then balanced out with the slightly salty Venezuelan queso de mano or homemade cheese. Venezuelan queso de mano is a soft cheese similar to fresh mozzarella but more complex in flavor. Queso de mano is brinier, reminiscent of the sea. Cheese is the difference between a good cachapa and a fantastic one, so Monica and Mickey knew they would have to go to great lengths to find traditional queso de mano. When they first opened, there were no distributors that they knew of making Venezuelan cheese here in the States. But they eventually found one in Miami and so they regularly have fresh queso de mano brought up from Florida.

Café Azul
Café Azul

Traditional Venezuelan Tamal or Hallaca

Another notable offering at Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer are the hallacas. Hallacas are the Venezuelan version of a tamal. Hallacas are filled with a cornmeal dough or masa and chicken, pork, beef or a combination of all three. They also have raisins and capers and olives for that irresistible mix of sweet and salty. They are then wrapped in plantain leaves instead of corn husks like Mexican or Central American tamales. But like Mexican and Central American tamales, they are traditionally eaten around Christmas time. In fact, because of the demand for hallacas at Christmas, Café Azul - Caracas de Ayer stays open on Sundays in December. Thankfully though, hallacas are available all year round at the cafe. And since they make them fresh but don’t cook them right away, you can always take them home and freeze them. Once they defrost and you steam them, it’s just like eating a fresh tamal.

Given the diverse background of the family, the menu also inevitably includes treats that are popular in other parts of South and Central America as well. Delicious homemade empanadas are fan favorites and almost always available, as are tequeños which are cigar-shaped, cheese-filled pastries that are very popular with kids. They also do a mean Cubano sandwich at the café. And if you’re not too stuffed for a sweet treat, they even make a delicious tres (and cuatro!) leches cake.

The Beloved Empanada

Café Azul

For ten years the Hyattsville community has been able to enjoy the offerings of Venezuelan food that Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer shares. That’s a lifetime in restaurant years. And there’s no sign that we won’t continue to be able to enjoy Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer for many more years to come. A variety of factors have led up the longevity and success of this local, family owned business where the kids might ring up your food order and their grandfather might deliver your food to the table and chat you up about his recent travels through Central America. Café Azul – Caracas de Ayer is a local treasure and as a nearby resident who is lucky enough to enjoy the lovingly prepared, delicious food and welcoming ambiance of this very special place, I can safely say that the communities they serve are very grateful that they’re here.

Visit:

Café Azul
4423 Longfellow Street,
Hyattsville, MD 20781
Phone: 301-209-0049

Laura Pimentel is a Washington, DC based foodie who likes to explore her world one bite at a time.