Venezuelan Arepas at El Aripo Café

[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

El Aripo Café is a tiny (read: 12 seats), nondescript arepa joint cranking out satisfying arepas with traditional flavors. They're all made from dense corn dough patties that remain moist on the inside but pick up a toasty golden crust outside after being griddled. And unlike some other arepas we've tried in the past, the corn dough bears a faint but unmistakable flavor of corn, an ideal flavor backdrop for all of the fillings.

The cheese arepa ($5) comes with your choice of feta, mozzarella, or both. We suggest you ask for both cheeses: the mozzarella provides a subtle creamy milkiness which is balanced by the feta's sharp saltiness. Unfortunately, the shredded mozzarella in our arepa wasn't fully melted when we received it, but it softens nicely after a few minutes of resting.

Slightly less successful was the shredded beef ($5.75) filled with shredded flank steak that had been seasoned with "secret spices." As a whole, the arepa was decently satisfying, but the "secret spices" in the beef didn't provide quite enough excitement for us, and the meat is cooked into tough, dry threads without a sauce to moisten them.

Our third (and favorite) arepa was the pastelon ($5.75), filled with fried sweet plantain and seasoned ground beef. Those secret spices penetrate the ground beef better than the flank, and the meat was tender and juicy. It's strongly flavored enough to stand up to the plantain's intense sweetness.

These arepas are pretty easy to eat by hand, though the kitchen doesn't always split them evenly, leaving one side of the pocket much more corny than the other. If you take careful bites this isn't much of a problem, but you should proceed with some caution.

El Aripo Café may not be a city-wide arepa destination, but the quality arepas are a boon to the Lower East Side, with warm, friendly service to boot.