This Cuisine in Exile Is Evolving in U.S. Cities
Venezuelan restaurants are gaining fans
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By Nicholas Gill
When Nidal Barake makes arepas, he uses the same precooked corn flour he used to in Caracas: Harina P.A.N. Production facilities in Texas and Colombia have made this staple product — once found in every Venezuelan home — more readily available outside of Venezuela than in it, where widespread shortages are common.
Prior to Hugo Chavez coming into power in 1999, few left prosperous Venezuela, keeping its cuisine mostly contained within the country. Made up of dishes like asado negro, roasted beef with a sweet glaze; or hallacas, banana leaf-wrapped tamales, Venezuelan food draws on the country’s diverse indigenous, European, and African makeup and its rich biodiversity.
Barake, a food writer and tech entrepreneur, left Venezuela four years ago. As the country became increasingly disconnected from the world at large, he didn’t even consider launching his culinary marketing agency, Gluttonomy, there. Everyone he knew was leaving or had already left.
He isn’t alone. The country’s economic collapse is the world’s single largest in half a century — outside of war — and has led to shocking inflation, food and supply shortages, and high crime. In just a few years, more than 4 million Venezuelans have fled the country, carrying the soul of their cuisine with them.
At his home in Miami, Barake mixes the flour with water and fat, usually a little olive oil or butter, until he can no longer stir the spoon. Then he’ll mix it with his hands, never letting it get too firm. He’ll add a pinch of salt and sugar, then forms the arepa and places it on a cast-iron skillet. It’s not exactly like the budare, the comal-like griddle he had in Venezuela, but it does the job.
“When there’s a thin crust on each side, I like to finish it in the oven,” he says. “So it stays moist on the inside.”
Barake fills his arepas with the things he encounters around him or in his travels: He might stuff them with smoked brisket leftovers from a BBQ restaurant. He might stuff them with duck and ají amarillo. Sometimes, he’ll make traditional Venezuelan fillings like black beans or reina pepiada, shredded chicken and avocado, though his sofrito, the flavor foundation of those dishes, isn’t always the same. He can’t always find ají dulce, the sweet pepper that’s standard in a Venezuelan sofrito with tomatoes and onions, so at times he’ll leave it out. In Venezuela they were plentiful, but in Florida they aren’t as common, so when he finds them he buys as much as he can.
From Cucutá to Lima, Venezuelan refugees have turned to selling arepas and tizana, a drink with chunks of fruits soaked in orange juice and grenadine, as a means to get by. In 2018 alone, nearly 30,000 Venezuelans applied for asylum with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, more than any other country. That’s up from about 2,000 in 2014. Traditional foods like patacones, or plantain sandwiches, and cachapas, or griddled corn pancakes, are being served from a growing number of Venezuelan-run restaurants in New York, Texas, and South Florida.
In Brooklyn, former swimwear designers Paola Fernández and Katherine Rengifo, along with Fernández’s sister Ana, began making Venezuelan foods at home to cure their homesickness. It blossomed into Váyalo Cocina, a stand selling arepas, dough-wrapped cheese sticks called tequeños, and Venezuelan-style hot dogs at food fair Smorgasburg. Pamela Lozano was a lawyer in Venezuela, but had to start from scratch when relocating to Texas. In May, she opened Arepa Nation at the Dallas Farmers Market, selling arepas with traditional fillings like shredded beef, sweet plantains, and black beans.
“For the experience of a lot of Venezuelans leaving the country is that one of the things that everyone carries around with them is a package of corn flour. The arepa is the first thing they want to have,” says Federico Tischler, whose family moved to Caracas when he was 2 after fleeing instability in Argentina. When Venezuela became too unstable, he moved to the U.S. and in 2016 opened White Envelope Arepabar in Baltimore’s R. House food hall.
Rather than just no-frills breakfast arepas, White Envelope serves gourmet versions of arepas that you would never find in Venezuela. They have arepas with regional fillings like curried skate and asado negro, as well as one with pork cracklings in the dough. There are also arepas naturally colored by ingredients like beets, spinach, and blood sausage. The space proved difficult, however, so Tischler converted the stand to selling burgers, Venezuelan-style hot dogs loaded with toppings, and yuca fries while he works to open an expanded version of White Envelope in D.C. later this year.
“Our idea is to introduce arepas in a more creative way, to use arepas as a vehicle for our culture,” says Tischler.
Until the basics started to disappear, Caracas once had a restaurant scene that rivaled anywhere else in Latin America, and restaurants like Alto, where El Bulli-trained chef Carlos Garcia adapts modern techniques to Venezuelan’s rich biodiversity, were once considered as influential as those in Lima or São Paulo. What’s remarkable is how the scene has transplanted to the U.S., with much of the same staff, and continues to evolve there.
In 2018, Garcia opened Obra Kitchen Table in Miami, where he serves things like soft shell crab arepas and roasted chicken in a yuca and bacon millefeuille, often to the same clientele he once served in Caracas. Similarly frustrated with the situation in Caracas, other fine-dining chefs are following suit.
“I’d struggle to find a kilo of sugar or a pint of flour,” says Enrique Limardo, who sold his restaurants Paprika and Yantar in Caracas. “With all the problems you have in a restaurant, then add that on top of it, it just wasn’t worth it.”
In 2015, Limardo opened Alma in Baltimore, which received a great review in The Washington Post, and recently opened Seven Reasons, a sophisticated, three-level space in Washington, D.C. Ninety percent of the kitchen team is Venezuelan, though those looking for pabellón and plain arepas will be disappointed. Limardo doesn’t call Seven Reasons a Venezuelan restaurant, but, at the same time, it isn’t not a Venezuelan restaurant.
Aside from spending his formative years in Spain, Limardo spent four years traveling around the world as a private chef after leaving Caracas, picking up new flavors and techniques as he went. Still, Venezuelan flavors and ingredients form the backbone of the menu.
His sofrito is made with the ají dulce he gets from a Maryland farm. He uses coconut and panela, or raw sugarcane, in a lot of the recipes. He misses cooking with tonka beans, insects, and the Amazonian fruits that he is unable to source, though the green mango salad with adobo that every Venezuelan remembers eating as a kid is hidden within a tostada. The bed of rice used beneath the whole fried fish share plate is the exact same rice that you would find on Isla Margarita and, if you close your eyes, you can imagine yourself there.
“The techniques or my memory palate from my grandmother is in every single dish, but in different layers,” Limardo says. “When you eat the food you taste Venezuela, but it’s something else.”