No one expects to find French food in an Italian restaurant, or, say, bratwurst in a Greek restaurant. Yet when it comes to Hispanic or Latino food, there is a common misconception that it all tastes like Mexican food (and really, that all Mexican food tastes alike, but that's for another day).
This is no more true than all food from Europe tastes the same, or that food from the American South and the North are indistinguishable.
Arepa and Salsa is a new Venezuelan restaurant on Madison in The Edge, just down the street from Evelyn and Olive and the Trolley Stop Market. While Cuban restaurants have come and gone and we've dabbled with Colombian, Dominican and El Salvadoran food, I believe this is the first Venezuelan restaurant to enter our market.
And look at me, lumping those all together. OK, it's true there are some similarities. The Pabellon Oscar at Arepa and Salsa is similar to ropa vieja, a shredded beef dish popular in Cuban restaurants (and in Puerto Rico, Panama and the Dominican Republic). It's a hearty meal, and at $10, the priciest item on the menu at Arepa and Salsa.
There's an attractive geometric presentation: The food is arranged on the square plate in triangles. Half the plate is filled with rice, making a large triangle. Lined up neatly to the border of white rice is a smaller triangle of black beans topped with a sprinkle of salty white cheese, and next to that, the tender and flavorful shredded beef. It's deeply meaty, like a good, slow-cooked chuck roast; the predominant added flavors come from tomatoes, pepper, onion and garlic. I find the beef texturally more pleasing than ropa vieja, which is long strings of beef that are often, well, stringy. The beef in the Pabellon Oscar is short shreds, more akin to the "debris" of New Orleans.
The beans were hearty, also flavored with garlic, onion and cumin. The rice was ordinary, which translates to subpar for a restaurant. With nutty long-grain rice available in ethnic markets all over the city, it seems a shame to serve a short-grain rice with no flavor. To be fair, rice is grown in Venezuela and this unexceptional variety might be authentic, though that doesn't improve the taste.
Fried plantains garnish the dish, and keep this in mind: Venezuela (like the other countries mentioned above) is a Caribbean country. Yes, it's part of South America, but the north of the country is Caribbean coastline. Plantains are as common throughout the region as biscuits are at the Southern breakfast table. At Arepa and Salsa, they're fried as a side item, and they're fine — if you like plantains. But as tostones, well, that's something to write home about, or today's version of it: Snap a photo and text it to your friends.
I've never been a fan of plantains, which I deem not sweet enough to be eaten like a fruit but too sweet to be served as a vegetable. On a Caribbean trip a year or two ago, a friend insisted on preparing a meal for us when I revealed this. "You'll love tostones," she said. I was dubious, as tostones are, after all, plantains.
She was right. Here's the deal: They're plantains that are sliced, fried, patted to remove excess oil, then smashed and fried again. Double fried. Salted and seasoned. And at Arepa and Salsa, used in place of bread to make sandwiches. Delicious.
Now, to the named attractions. Don't expect a table full of salsa, as it refers to the dance instead of the condiment. On Friday nights, tables are moved, and the front area of the restaurant becomes a dance floor. The fun starts at 9 p.m., there's an instructor, and it's free.
But the arepas are for eating. I expected a much smaller item based on my limited experience with arepas, which I'd had only as a bread side item in a handful of restaurants. Here, an arepa is a hearty meal. The corn patty is larger than a typical gordito, and maybe just a bit smaller than an average pita. It's split to form a pocket, and the inside is generously stuffed with beef, pork or chicken salad.
The chicken salad is too wet and too sweet for my tastes, but the pernil (roasted pork with lettuce, tomato and avocado), de pabellon (that delicious shredded beef, with black beans, plantains and white cheese), and la sifrina (the shredded beef with cheddar) are all very good. Each is served with a handful of frozen fries; on one visit, we received crinkle-cut fries and on another, plain ones.
The restaurant has been open only about six weeks, and owner Marguel Polania (she's from Venezuela, and her husband and co-owner, Diego Polania, is from Colombia) says the menu will grow in the months to come.
Arepa and Salsa
Address: 662 Madison.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Reviewer’s choice: Pabellon Oscar ($10); Pabellon tostone ($8.50); pork or beef arepas ($7 and $7.50).
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars