There are three areperas—that word seems to come out wrong—within a few blocks of each other in Williamsburg. Each sell the South American-inspired corncake pockets for about the same price ($5.50 to $7 each).
On a mission to find the best, I joined Serious Eater Jenn Sit and her friend Bill to hit all three: Caracas, the local hipster-approved joint with another in the East Village; Arepa Arepa, going on a month old and still trying to feel out the nabe; and Shachi's, probably the most "traditional Venezuelan," AKA no fancied-up fillings with the TV blaring inside (set to South American soccer league during the season).
At each stop, we tried the traditional El Pabellón: shredded beef, black beans, sweet plantains and cheese, in addition to the house favorites. The results, after the jump.
Overall: Solid in terms of variety and bold flavors. Plus, each table is stocked with squeeze bottles of a mystery sauce. "They won't tell us what's in it," said our waiter, but it's garlicky, a little spicy, and a sundried tomato chunk was spotted in there.
The Arepa Pocket: Best of the three. Maybe it's just salt, but whatever it was, it did the trick. Good yellowy color, good kind of gritty texture, and just a good complement to arepa guts.
El Pabellón: Awesome.
Other Flavors: You have to get La Sureña: grilled chicken and garlicky-kapow chorizo with avocado slices and, as the menu states, "always enigmatic spicy chimi-churri sauce." Because everyone loves an enigmatic garnish. La del Gato (cheese, fried plantains, and avocados) was fine, but nothing revolutionary.
BYOB? Yes. They'll grab your six-pack, throw it in the fridge, and when you're ready, bring them out in soup-like bowls. Sipping beer with two hands is kind of really fun!
Overall: Some arepas are bland, others are show-stoppers. Pretty inconstant.
The Arepa Pocket: Forgettable. Pale color (no yellow? where is the corn?) and paler flavor.
El Pabellón: Lacking vigor. It needed a little salt, lime, spice, anything to kick it up a few hundred notches. The black bean dredges that fell out weren't even worth salvaging.
Other Flavors: Whoa, De Camarones—probably the best arepa we had all afternoon. Sauteed rock shrimp with chipotle sauce, salty white cheese, pico de gallo and nata (a Venezuelan creme fraiche). It's not for the arepa purist, but that's really not what this place is about. Owner Dublin Salas was born in Venezuela, "but my home is New York," and he likes flair. "You have to be OK with letting go." The Italo-Venezuelan piles on pesto, a mealy tomato (is it tomato season yet?) and guayanés cheese, which is just too good. It's like mozzarella's intense South American cousin. Salas special orders the guayanés from a family in Miami, and will even order a little extra for you (it's apparently hard to find). Take him up on that.
BYOB? Yep. Until they get a liquor license.
Overall: Pronounced "cha-cheese." If you want more calories-per-buck, go here. The portions are huge. Hamburger-sized fatties. Plus they bring out plantain chips first.
The Arepa Pocket: Crunchy and served hot, but as bland as Arepa Arepa in flavor. They don't seem to carve out the inner pocket fluff (unlike the two others), which makes for a carbier arepa.
El Pabellón: Probably the best of the three. The beef was nicely-seasoned, it was served steaming-hot, and the bulky size (with a huge layer of shredded queso blanco on top) made eating this so satisfying.
Other Flavors: Reina pepiada, or the chicken-potato salad arepa, is not of the vile mystery-salad food genre. Big hunks of avocado and pulled chicken with some creamy filler, but not too much—very smooth, and a nice switch-up from the beef. The Choriqueso involves a pile of sausage bits, which made for a mouthful of smoky flavor.
BYOB? Nope. They have an actual bar.