Caracas Arepa Bar
93 1/2 East 7th Street, New York NY 10009 (between 1st & A; map); 212-529-2314; caracasarepabar.com
Veggie Options: Nearly everything. Most items with meat can be substituted for baked tofu.
Cost: Appetizers $4.50-8.75, arepas and empanadas $4.75-7.50, desserts $3.25-5.25
Caracas is my East Village no-fail. The Venezuelan arepas are authentic, delicious, and reasonably cheap; the atmosphere is casual and friendly. If you're a friend of mine and we've gone out to eat more than once, odds are I've taken you here. And vegetarian-friendly? As much as you could possibly hope for and then some.
As with most great spots in the East Village, Caracas comes with two setbacks: it is insanely popular and insanely tiny. Luckily there are ways to get around this: 1) The take-out-only shop two doors down is decently fast and even has a few tiny tables that you can usually snag, and 2) the Brooklyn location is much less crazy-busy. Added bonus for the Brooklynites: built-in rum bar!
What exactly is a Venezuelan arepa? A round corn flour dough base (like a thick, fluffy corn pita-pocket) is stuffed with some combination of cheeses, meats, beans, plantains, avocado, sautéed vegetables, and so on. It's basically a handful of delicious.
A good start to a meal here is the bright, refreshing passion fruit juice ($3.75). Despite the variety of juices, milkshakes, and even a few cocktails on the menu, the passion fruit juice has remained my favorite. It's like they crammed a sunny Venezuelan day into a glass and added a straw.
The menu also offers some pretty great appetizers. I'm partial to the Tostones Mochimeros ($5.50), fried green plantains topped with a flavorful mojito mayo and crumbly white cheese, served with fresh cilantro. Far more savory than sweet or minty, these tasty two-bites are like a Venezuelan take on crostini.
I also love the Tequeños ($8.75), which are essentially mozzarella sticks but even better; these sticks of soft white cheese are wrapped in dough before being deep fried, and are perfect for dipping and dousing in tons of sauce.
What sauce, you ask? The magical Caracas secret sauce, of course. A little spicy, a little tangy, a little sweet—you basically want to put it on everything. (My significant other has been known to go through half a bottle of the stuff in one sitting.) The ingredients are a guarded secret, but you can buy a take-home bottle so you can get your fix.
Finally—on to the arepas. They're small but well-stuffed: usually I find 1 1/2 arepas to be about right for me—two if I'm pretty hungry. Most meat fillings can be replaced with baked tofu, which essentially gives a vegetarian free reign over the menu, but then I find it difficult to execute that option when there are so many delicious already-meatless menu items to begin with.
Reliably good is La del Gato ($6.25, pictured up top) which has guayanés cheese, fried sweet plantains, and avocado slices. The soft, slightly salty cheese goes quite nicely with the fresh avocado and sweet plantains, but if that sounds a bit too mild for you, a good dousing of secret sauce will perk it right up.
A little more adventurous is La Mulata ($6.25), with a deliciously grilled firm white cheese, black beans, sautéed red peppers, fried sweet plantains, and jalapeños (both picked and fresh, so be prepared for a kick!). With so many components no two bites are quite the same, but those bites with the most fried cheese are definitely my favorite.
Sadly they were out of one of my all-time favorites, La Jardinera (grilled eggplants, sundried tomatoes, caramelized onions and guayanés cheese, $6.25) so you're going to have to take my word that it's delicious. In its place we ordered De Guasacaca ($6.25), which comes stuffed with guacamole and a small sprinkling of paisa cheese. It's basically a guacamole sandwich, which is by no means a bad thing. But fair warning: with each bite the guacamole will attempt to spurt out in every direction possible.
While you may not have room for dessert, the Quesillo ($4.75), the house flan, will do the job. It was on the firm side of the flan spectrum, and every crevice was soaked through with caramelly syrup. It would be wise to share—more than half and I was starting to feel the brunt of its intense sweetness.
Caracas is one of my favorite options for anybody, vegetarian or otherwise. The only disappointments I've ever had involved anything with cheddar cheese. It's the generic shredded un-melted orange stuff, and the other cheeses they use are so fantastic that I don't know why they even bothered. Everything else is reliably delicious.