At Caracas, The Holy Arepa

CaracasIan Duncan Caracas Arepa Bar, 93½ East Seventh Street.

Caracas Arepa Bar, at 93½ East Seventh Street, between First Avenue and Avenue A, is just about the only restaurant in the East Village which is crowded at lunch — at least the only one worth eating at. This came as a huge surprise to the owner, Maribel Araujo, who told me the other day that she never thought the place would develop a lunch crowd. I said, “There’s no mystery — you’re the only place that’s that good and that cheap.”

Caracas is a tiny, clattering little restaurant which specializes in arepas, the soft corn-flour pocket bread eaten all over Venezuela. The arepa at Caracas has always struck me as the perfect combination of pliability — to hold the filling — and crispness. Maribel explained that while all arepas are cooked on a griddle, Caracas puts theirs in an oven for an additional 10 minutes, so that the dough on the underside fully cooks without losing its springiness, while the outside reaches the proper state of crunchiness. I have no source of comparison, but I once brought arepas from Caracas to Penelope Cruz, and she pronounced them completely authentic. To be strictly factual, I shared them with an extremely beautiful woman from Caracas who looks as much like Penepole Cruz as a mortal can. She was very impressed. And that was recommendation enough for me.

My favorite arepas are the musical-sounding La de Pernil — roasted pork shoulder with tomato and mango sauce — and La Surena, which contains grilled chicken and a very tangy chorizo, along with avocado and what the menu puckishly describes as “the classic and always enigmatic spicy chimi-churri sauce.” I’m not sure what’s so enigmatic about chimi-churri, a paste of garlic and herbs; but Maribel did urge me to add a squirt of Caracas Sauce, which the restaurant sells and whose ingredients she refuses to divulge.

CaracasIan Duncan Inside Caracas.

The other distinctive constituents of Venezuelan cuisine are white cheeses, variously sweet and salty, creamy or cakey, and plantains. I always order yoyos because I like saying the word, but I also like the thing: deep friend plantain balls with cheese in the center, sliced open so that the cheese bubbles up from the core. The cheese also comes in an almost powdery form, as a dry dip for fried plantains (tajadas) or as a kind of deep-fried swizzle stick (tequenos). None of these dishes costs as much as $9. Even the Chilean or Argentine wine at Caracas is priced to sell, at $8 a glass.
Like so many local restaurateurs, Maribel, a petite woman with dark hair and dark eyes, once intended to do something very different with her life. She was a film and television producer who left Caracas for New York to work on an Internet start-up a decade ago; when the company went bust, she dabbled in this and that, and then one day came home and said to her husband, “I don’t want to be a famous producer; I want a little place where I can sell arepas and natural juices.” The little place she started is now her take-out stand, two storefronts to the west.

Caracas is Maribel’s shrine to the food and the feel of her hometown (at least before it became a global symbol of violence and misrule). One wall of Caracas is lined with religious figurines in wooden boxes. On the other is a mural of a crowned woman whom I took to be the Virgin. Not quite: She is Maria Lionza, a folk figure who is half woman and half danta (an Amazonian hybrid, claims Maribel, of horse and pig). This icon of the syncretic faith of the Venezuelan countryside makes for bright and cheerful company.

Maribel has expanded into Brooklyn and — as of Memorial Day weekend — on to the boardwalk at Rockaway Beach, where a funky food community is taking shape. Caracas-on-the-beach serves a version of fish and chips — tilapia deep-friend in batter, with pico de gallo sauce — which is, says Maribel, “amazing.” She does not strike me as a woman prone to hyperbole.

Caracas Arepa Bar, 93½ East Seventh Street, 212-529-2314.