AREPA CAFE (490 Queen West, at Portland, 416-362-4111) Complete meals for $20 per person, including all taxes, tip and a domestic beer. Average main $8. Open Monday and Tuesday 10 am to 7 pm, Wednesday to Saturday 10 am to 9 pm, Sunday 11 am to 6 pm. Closed Christmas Day, New Year’s Day. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
If Eduardo Lee and Marc Lukacs have their way, Venezuelan arepas could be the next hamburgers.
To make that happen, the first-time restaurateurs - Lee designs commercial interiors (he's responsible for Pepe, Torito's sexy basement taperia); Lukacs is a medical engineer at Sunnybrook - have launched Arepa Café, a stylishly appointed space dedicated to the South American cornbread.
If you've ever had a pupusa at Emporio Latino in the Market, you've had something similar. While pupusas are flat cornmeal pancakes stuffed with beans, cheese or pork, arepas are thicker - more like grilled English muffins - and taste like hot buttered popcorn. They also come with more elaborate fillings.
In my first encounter with an arepa, an exceptionally sloppy chicken salad full of mashed avocado and mayonnaise (Reina Pepiada, $7), most of it ends up on my shirt. But the boneless breast meat that finds its way into my mouth is unusually moist, and its accompanying "bun" has picked up a buttery crust from the griddle.
Less of a mess, slices of roasted pork tenderloin get gently kissed with peppery annatto and topped with a heap of sweetly caramelized onion (Adobo, $6.50). A drizzle of spicy avocado guasacaca salsa adds subtle heat. Side it with a not-to-be-missed salad of watercress and avocado in a lemony vinaigrette dressed with assertively pickled red onion ($3) for a perfect lunch or light supper.
Pressed submarine sandwiches on crusty Vietnamese banh mi baguette arrive generously layered with thinly sliced Virginia ham, old white cheddar, ripe tomato and mayo-dressed romaine (Pepito, $7.50). A side of chayote coleslaw ($3) adds considerable crunch. Pass on perfunctory pumpkin soup ($4).
Owner/chef Eduardo Lee shows off the house specialty (left). Arepa Cafe chef Andres Hernandez preps the cornbread that's key to the arepa sandwich (right).
Back a few days for a second visit, we find a much busier Arepa. Nearly every table of the dozen or so in the exceedingly sunny room seems to be taken by family and friends. Another gaggle of customers stands by the take-away counter, where an uncooperative computer cash register is causing a backlog.
Eventually ordering a Patera fair trade espresso ($2.50) and a lemonade sweetened with raw sugar cane ($1.75), we snag the last two-top.
After 10 minutes of studying Arepa's extended menu, we realize that no one is coming to take our order. So it's back to the counter for another wait. These kinds of hiccups are par for the course for any new resto, but since there are already five employees on the floor, wouldn't table service make things easier? The kids are delivering the food to tables and busing them anyway. And just imagine the tips!
A Latin-accented Johnny Depp look-alike returns with the house's Pabellón Caraqueno Platter ($10.50), a Caracas-style take on Venezuela's national dish. Our response to its plain white rice, starchy fried plantain and boring black beans is significantly less than patriotic, but the combo's garlicky shredded steak with red peppers and tomato has us saluting the flag.
We'll also hail ex-Xango executive chef Carlos Fuenmayor's cachapas ($8.50), a pair of fabulously tasty corn-kernel flapjacks finished with slabs of mozzarella-like queso and a few snippets of fresh basil.
Special mention, too, to Arepa's impressive desserts. Crème caramel ($4) goes down as smooth as a Tiger Woods apology, while retro pineapple upside down cake ($3.25) could win Martha Stewart's approval.
Best of the bunch, pastry chef José Arato's absurdly decadent chocolate-covered macadamia and caramel tarts ($4.50) are so sinfully rich, they're likely illegal in Alberta.