Non-Negotiable Rules for Eating at Caracas:
1. Arrive before normal humans. Peer through the window until the staff shakes their heads at you.
2. Embrace the secret sauce. Drink it. Swim in it.
3. Go only with a small group (if you want a table). And order everything. Share for once.
4. No forks. Let the sauce drip down to your elbows.
5. Stop holding the pillowy corn cake against your skin and just eat the damn thing.
Now, you may continue.
It’s 11:52am and we’re already on East 7th Street, pacing on the sidewalk and baking in the heat. Noon hits and we’re through the door just as the staff finished turning on the lights. It’s pretty rare to see Caracas like this, as a ghost town. During prime time, there’s not a chance that you would just waltz in here with your only worry being which arepa you’re going to order. This place is known for its wait and doesn’t do reservations. Reservations are for sissies. You have to fight for your table.
If you’ve never done the whole arepa thing, just know that they are basically white cornmeal buns that are grilled and baked and then stuffed with the world. They’re toasty on the outside and pillowy on the inside. So pillowy, in fact, that you’ll want to crawl inside and take a nap. The ones at Caracas Arepa Bar are Venezuelan—and, if you’re anything like me and my overblown food reactions, they’ll make you squirm in your seat.
Only a few minutes have passed and it’s appetizer time. I guess that’s what you get when you’re the only party in a restaurant that’s used to cranking out arepa after arepa after arepa on a Saturday night. This is nothing for these guys.
When fried green plantains are topped with a mojito mayo and snowed on with white cheese, you get Tostones Mochimeros. With a hit of citrus, they were our first taste of Caracas.
Next up were the Yoyos. Fried, sweet and decadent, I had already done enough corporal damage for the day at this point, which was too bad since it was only 12:20. You live and you learn. (You don’t.) Each of these sweet plantain half moons were stuffed with soft, oozy white cheese and then fried in a cinnamon-plantain butter.
Now I experienced the arepa for the first time in my college dining hall (first mistake). They were the vegan option (second mistake), and came with a corn cake, beans and veggies all slopped together in a big bowl. Whenever arepa day came around, I always tip-toed over to the salad bar to fix the situation. An arepa without shredded cheese? Please.
Basically, my choice reflected my past deprivation of arepas of the meaty nature. I got the De Pabellón, a gorgeously sloppy mix of tender shredded beef, black beans, cheese and sweet plantains. At first, when it arrived at the table, I’ll say that I was a bit taken aback by how small it was. I mean, it only took up half of my plastic tray (which in other countries would be perfectly fine). But just three bites in, I realized how dense it was, and how if it needed to be bigger, it would be. Do not eat this bad boy on a date, I beg of you.
And here’s a crack sauce if I’ve ever tasted one. It’s a secret weapon at Caracas, and they probably go through it like toilet paper (sorry, but what else do you go through that quickly?). Loaded with garlic and other mysteriously spicy ingredients, the sauce is that odd yellow color that everyone seems to own a J. Crew cardigan in. It’s not exactly a pretty color, but it manages to match my arepa just right. I basically drowned my De Pabellón in it, and that wasn’t necessarily a faux pas. It did nothing to mask the beef, the beans, the cheese or the subtly sweet plantain. It did everything to amplify them.
Oh, the memories.
My dad’s choice, Vista al Mar, was lighter than the rest, and perhaps the most thoughtful. It came with pan-seared tilapia, pickled onions (my favorite), garlic oil, radish and an herb spread of parsley, cilantro and oregano. It was fresh and envy-inducing. I mean, if nothing else just look at those colors. Fresh and vivid, baby.
My eldest sister, Emily, made the mature decision, of course, getting an arepa that was classic, understated and vegetarian. Her choice, La del Gato, was generally more elegant than mine, daintily filled with soft guayanés cheese, slices of velvety avocado and a couple sweet plantains.
Despite our differences, Emily, too, went to town with the secret sauce. Thatta girl.
Caracas Arepa Bar, 93 East 7th St., New York, New York
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