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What the heck is an arepa?

Nico’s Arepas Grill is known for the Venezuelan national dish, corncakes filled with a great variety of meats and cheeses, as well as chicken soup and other Venezuelan specialities.
Nico’s Arepas Grill is known for the Venezuelan national dish, corncakes filled with a great variety of meats and cheeses, as well as chicken soup and other Venezuelan specialities.
Published Jul. 27, 2016

What I ate: What the heck is an arepa? It's the national sandwich of Venezuela and neighboring Colombia, and at Nico's Arepas Grill, it can be stuffed with nearly 20 choices of fillings.

Think a thick, cornmeal pancake, split open and loaded with meats, cheeses and veggies in many combinations, served grilled, baked or fried.

My very hungry dinner guest found an efficient way to sample a number of the offerings, ordering the aptly named La Glotona (the Glutton). This arepa holds beef, chicken, potato salad, cheese and on request, pork.

I decided to try another, similar national dish — the cachapa, also a stuffed corn patty, but sweeter than the arepa. Shredded chicken and potato salad were folded inside and smothered under a blob of soft, white cheese.

A larger version, the cachapatona, comes piled with all of the above, plus additional scoops of shredded beef, chicken salad and shrimp. The arepas are gluten-free, the cachapa with a touch of flour is not.

Soup was the big surprise of the night, and I do mean big. caldo de pollo (chicken) or res (beef), both chock-full of sweet potato, yuca and corn on the cob, are ladled out in two sizes I would call huge and enormous.

It may sound cliche, but on a day of terrible news headlines, the chicken soup really did soothe the soul. I'm told the traditional sopa de mondongo (tripe), served only weekends, is just as curative.

We skipped salad but seeing so many people sipping chicha rice drinks and fruit milk shakes with dinner, we had to see why. Thick, creamy and sweet, our mango and passion fruit drinks became desserts, as well.

What it cost: Bottom line: An extremely filling meal for two should just top $25, with drinks.

Arepas are $7.99 for each of the 14 named options. They include Nico's Chicken Special, which holds shredded chicken, chicken salad and white cheese, and the Asado, eye of round beef and gouda. The price is the same if you concoct your own mix of up to five fillings, which can include vegan options, shrimp vinaigrette and when available, quail eggs.

Cachapas are also $7.99, up to $10 for the works. Soups, from $5.95 to $9.99, make a meal by themselves. Side orders of sweet plaintains, tostones, black beans, rice or a small, plain arepa run $2 to $3. Milk shakes, $3.50, come in six flavors.

Appetizers hover around $5, including tequenos (fried cheese sticks), empanadas (fried stuffed turnovers), and patacones, (fried green plantains).

What I thought: Better come hungry. Arepas fillings seem more filling than a stuffed pita, calzone or Cuban sandwich. For years, I'd seen the blue Nico's Arepas food truck at rallies and food fests, but it took me a while to discover that Adrien Castillo also owned a Miami-mod deco restaurant on Armenia Avenue, just south of Waters Avenue.

But since that discovery, I have taken at least 10 friends for the chicken soup. Most times I order Nico's sampler, $12.99, or a platter of three mini arepa sliders, $6.99, to introduce them to Venezuelan cuisine. The restaurant has no alcohol license, but locals pack the place for live music from 7:30 to 11 p.m. Saturdays. Night owls and hospitality workers know Nico's stays open for them until 4 a.m. on weekends.

Times staff writer Amy Scherzer