LAND O'LAKES — The arepa arrives on a white plate as an ambassador for Venezuela.
It's a half-inch-thick corn cake, fried brown in giraffe patches, folded with Spanish white cheese, and served hot in what the brothers-in-law of Tia Mina proclaim the only Venezuelan restaurant in the Tampa Bay area.
Tia Mina is the latest Latin American venture in central Pasco County, and the restaurant's hallmark is food from the former Spanish colony on the northern coast of South America, where a European flair still dominates.
"So you have things like tilapia italiana, which has green olives, capers, wine, tomatoes," said Jose Sebastiani, the 48-year-old chef of the seven-table joint on State Road 54, next to Lifestyle Family Fitness. "Because we have so many Italians there and Spanish, too."
Three months ago, Sebastiani was an operations manager for a medical supply company in Michigan. His partner and brother-in-law, Jose Moronta, 56, was a medical supplies exporter in Tampa.
But Moronta saw a gift for cooking in his brother-in-law, and aided by their wives Cecilia and Noelia, who is Sebastiani's sister, they launched Tia Mina five weeks ago.
It's been buzzing in the last two weeks, Moronta said.
"People come from Pinellas, Hillsborough, even Hernando," Moronta said. "This is the only Venezuelan restaurant in the Tampa Bay area."
The curry is greenish with sage here at Tia Mina, which owes its name to Sebastiani's grandmother.
The cachapa is "exactly like a pancake, but made of sweet corn," Moronta said.
"Jose uses a lot of corn, because we use a lot of corn in our country," Moronta said. "A lot of Venezuelan specialities are based on corn."
Like the arepa, which can also be stuffed with shredded beef or shrimp or avocado salad.
"Instead of a hamburger, people can eat an arepa," Moronta said, sounding a little mystified on why they didn't already.
And the bienmesabe, which has no real equivalent word in English.
Bien means good, me means me, and sabe means taste.
It's just a Venezuelan coconut cream cake whose name is a charming mash for "tastes good to me."
There's another name for bienmesabe on the Tia Mina menu. It's typed in brackets: "Wow! Cream cake."
That's thanks to a customer who tried the cake but couldn't pronounce its name, Moronta said.
"He just said wow!"
Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613.