"El Cocotero shows that Venezuelan fare extends way beyond arepas."
228 West 18th Street, New York NY 10011 (b/n Seventh and Eighth avenues; map); 212-206-8930
Service: Acceptably minimal
Setting: Dark storefront filled with Venezuelan symbols and artifacts
Must-Haves: Pabellon Arepa, Venezuelan pot roast patacones maracuchos, young goat
Cost: $15 to $35 a person, depending on what you order
It's hard to believe that in this age of food media saturation, a restaurant can open under the radar. Yet until one of our stellar interns, serious eater Michele Humes, rapturously described El Cocotero's crispy green plaintain sandwich, patacones maracuchos, I had not heard of or read about El Cocatero. Even googling it shed virtually no light on the restaurant. Michele shamed me into paying a visit there, a mere ten minutes from Serious Eats World HQ.
El Cocotero is housed in an easy-to-miss storefront across the street from a post office. There's an easygoing authenticity to the place, from the Venezuelan pop music soundtrack, the Venezuelan flag, to the Venezuelan diorama in the unisex bathroom. That easygoing authenticity seems to extend to the food.
Arepas, Venezuelan food's entry point into the mainstream New York eating scene, are just one of the many ways El Cocotero sandwiches protein with starches. Here, the arepas are baked corn flour pockets filled with your choice of a seemingly endless array of fillings. These pockets are kind of bland (they're desperately in need of salt), so serious eaters should make sure they select a filling loaded with flavor—something like the Pabellon ($7.25), made with shredded beef, sweet plantain, white cheese, and black beans.
The Miss Venezuela ($5.50), made with avocado and tomatoes, is not the wisest choice. The Chinquiquira ($7.95), which adds Guayanas cheese to the Miss Venezeula, is a better vegetarian choice, though it's hard to figure out how the cheese adds $2.45 to the price. As a fan of combo plates, I'm sad to report that the degustacion, a bite-sized arepa sampling, is overpriced at $37.90 (or $18.95 x 2) as it's stated on the menu.
Much better to spend that money on a generous sampling of Michele's favorite, the patacones maracuchos. These are crisp green plantain sandwiches. The asado negro ($8.95), the Venezuelan pot roast, is savory and delicious. Though beef seems to play a more significant role in Venezuelan cooking than pork, the pernil patacone ($8.95) is a solid roast-pork sandwich simply adorned with mayo, lettuce, and tomatoes.
The most distinctive non-sandwich specialty is the hallaca ($15.95), a corn tamale holiday dish filled with—get this—stewed chicken, beef, pork, olives, capers, and raisins, all wrapped in banana leaves. Adding further to the hallaca madness is that it comes with a hillock of tasty chunky chicken salad. I know it sounds wacky, but it all kind of works in a Latino comfort food sort of way.
The pricey camarones Cocotero ($18.95), are sautéed shrimp bathed in a fine cilantro pesto. The shrimp are free of excessive iodine flavor and are mercifully not overcooked. They are served on, yes, wedges of crisp fried plantain.
If you insist on not getting some kind of sandwich, the chivo en coco ($16.95)—tender, stewed pieces of young goat in red and green pepper coconut sauce, served with rice and the seemingly ubiquitous green plantains—are the way to go.
For dessert, which seems to be an afterthought here, have the torta tres leches ($5.50), a three-milk caramel cake that is moist, almost light, and, amazingly, not too sweet.
El Cocotero shows that Venezuelan fare extends way beyond arepas. In fact, arepas here play second fiddle to the patacones. Street-fair organizers, take note. Consider replacing your arepas with a tastier alternative. You might even sell more socks as a result.