Venezuelan arepas, soft, griddled corn patties stuffed with roasted meats, cheeses, and tropical fruits, are one of the most satisfying snacks from Latin America, but surprisingly hard to find in New York. If you're not interested in facing the crowds at Caracas, the city's most popular arepa restaurant, head over to Arepas Cafe in Astoria, where arepas cover more than half of the menu.
The overstuffed arepas are thin but with a soft crumb; the griddled crust yields a slight resistance to a bite but not so much that it forces stuffing out of the pocket. They're sized between a taco and a sandwich, about 4.5" in diameter, so you may aim for two for a full meal.
Though some of the more stewy fillings, such as the pollo mechado (chicken stewed with peppers and onions; $6.50), can get soggy, the cornmeal shell still holds its shape. The guayanesa tropical ($6), stuffed with a salty cheese, avocado slices, and sweet fried plantains, has no such problem with durability. The arepa maintains its texture well into the meal and provides an excellent contrast to the soft fillings.
The mami ($7.50), is a meal in itself. Hidden beneath a layer of sliced avocado and shredded queso blanco is a mountain of tender, incredibly porky pernil, accented with just a little garlic and vinegar. No sweet sauces here to cover up that sincere pork flavor.
Less successful is an arepa stuffed with a cazon stew of school shark, peppers, and tomato ($7.50). School shark is an oily fish, and here it has a texture not unlike canned tuna, so it's best for diehard fans of fishy funk.
An arepera is only as good as it house sauce, and Arepas Cafe does not disappoint. There are no definitive ingredients to a house sauce, but they are almost always a balance of hot chili peppers, sweet tropical fruit, soft herbs, and a some fat (avocado, mayonnaise, oil, or some combination). The only requirement seems to be that it is served from a squirt bottle on the table. The highly addictive green sauce seems to be a combination of guasacaca and Peruvian chicken green sauce, heavy on cilantro, garlic, and vinegar. They won't reveal what else is in the bottle, but my guess is probably some jalapeno and avocado; the lighter color suggests that there may be some mayonnaise, perhaps grated cheese.
It's best to be generous with the sauce, as it improves nearly everything it touches. The orange sauce has a vinegary tang, intense heat from habanero peppers and excessive sweetness from papaya and added sugar; on its own, it's the weaker of the two sauces but does wonders to brighten the heavier arepas.
A mini platter ($11) offers a sampling of the fried appetizers that are among the few non-arepa items on the menu. The best are the yucca fries, which have a crunchy, rough exterior and a light starchless center, just a touch oily. The tequeños could use a few more seconds in the fryer, as their queso blanco filling remains disappointingly solid.
While Arepas Cafe isn't exactly a destination worth going far out of your way for, I'd have hard time not stopping by if were in the neighborhood.
Where are your favorite arepas? Please sound off in the comments.