Editors' pick

La Caraquena

Latin American
$$$$ ($15-$24)
Fill up on tasty saltenas and arepas at this Latin American eatery.
Mon and Wed-Fri noon-10 p.m.
Sat 11 am-10 pm
Sun 11 am-9 pm
(Falls Church)
68 decibels (Conversation is easy)

Editorial Review

2010 Fall Dining Guide

2010 Fall Dining Guide

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, October 17, 2010

From one small kitchen come the big flavors of two countries. Bolivia is represented by a delicate peanut soup and saltenas, braided turnovers that hide a stew of beef, carrots and potatoes. Venezuela is honored with arepas, flat white corn cakes filled with a choice of a dozen toppings, my favorite being garlicky sliced steak with cilantro and onions. Chef Raul Claros, 29, who was born the son of restaurateurs in Venezuela and moved to Bolivia as a teenager, also serves some of the area's best fried yuca: crisp outside, moist within and best dunked in a creamy garlic-cumin dip. For Christmas, Claros makes hallacas, the labor-intensive Venezuelan holiday staples that bundle pork, beef and chicken with almonds, raisins and olives in packets of masa and banana leaves. (Show up early; when his batch of 180 hallacas is gone, Claros cautions, he's finished for the season.) Any time of year, try to reserve one of a mere 32 seats in the cozy, low-ceilinged dining room, the corner of which reveals another of the chef's passions: bongos, congas and maracas.

Sietsema Review

A blend of tastes in a homey setting
La Caraquena's pan-Latin staples sing

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, April 25, 2010

Saltenas -- picture empanadas on steroids -- are a typically Bolivian dish.

Arepas -- flat, white ground-corn cakes amenable to stuffing -- are staples on Venezuelan menus.

Raul A. Claros serves both snacks at his sunny, three-year-old La Caraquena in Falls Church. The dishes are expressions of where the son of restaurateurs was born (Venezuela) and where he moved as a young teenager (Bolivia). They're also reminders of where Claros spent much of his time as the youngest of three boys in his family: in the kitchen of his parents' restaurants.

As early as age 4, Claros wore his own little apron and chef's hat and stood on a crate to reach the counter and "help" his friends, the cooks. "My mother tells everyone my Play-Doh was the dough for saltenas and arepas," says the chef, now 28.

Practice makes more or less perfect at La Caraquena, at least as far as those headliners are concerned.

The chef's fist-size saltenas are handsome, their surfaces braided and tinted yellow with achiote, a mildly bitter seed popular in Latin American cuisine. Cut away part of the top of the turnover, and you'll find a party of flavor beneath the slightly sweet crust: beef mingling with diced potatoes, carrots, peas, an olive or two and some chopped egg. The robust filling is good by itself, but if you want to ramp up the heat, just add a bit of the green condiment that accompanies the order. The combination of jalapenos, onions and cilantro sets everything, including your tongue, on fire. It hurts, but bring it on, baby!

Claros's arepas take more time to get to know. There are nearly a dozen fillings from which to choose, including the Domino (black beans and grated white cheese), the Sifrina (chicken salad rich with mayonnaise and avocado) and the Perico, which a waiter tells us sells well in the morning. (No wonder: It's heaped with scrambled eggs, tomatoes and bell peppers.) JP's Favorite is a nod to one of the chef's brothers, who once worked here. Thin slices of garlicky steak, with onions and cilantro, make that arepa one of my favorites, too. You'll be asked whether you want the abundant sandwiches grilled or fried. Claros thinks the cheesy arepas take well to frying, while the meatier versions benefit from grilling. I can go both ways.

There's more to explore than arepas and saltenas. Another Bolivian treasure is peanut soup, thin, delicate and tasty with bits of fried potato and micro-cilantro scattered across its surface. It's just a few ingredients, but a refined pleasure. You might also begin a meal with some of the area's best fried yuca, a simple dish done well. The golden chunks, crisp outside and moist inside, show up with a salsa that's too cold to taste right away, plus a creamy dip that gets its color from mustard and its kick from garlic and cumin. Corn tossed with celery, cilantro, lime juice and house-made mayonnaise adds up to a fine salad, while baked chicken in a chunky red cloak of tomatoes, onions and chili peppers proves incredibly tender, collapsing at the touch of a tine.

A word of warning. Eating here can be like experiencing a meal in the home of a charming friend who is easily distracted. With the help of a sidekick in the tiny kitchen and a server or two in the dining room, Claros is able to schmooze his customers. Sometimes you wish he'd stop gabbing and get grilling, though.

Turf impresses me more than surf. A dip into a main course called Ocean Mix turned up four shrimp and a lemon-caper sauce wasted on fishy-tasting grilled tilapia. And don't bother with dessert here. The creme caramel is as dense as a cold stick of butter. Where's the jiggle?

The flavors are similar at lunch and dinner, but the presentation is not. Evenings find prettier plates and fancier arrangements. At night, for instance, the Venezuelan dish of shredded beef known as pabellon criollo is layered like a flag in its bowl, starting with a stripe of black beans, then that tasty beef, some steamed rice and a border of soft, sweet plantains. It's a dynamite quartet, thanks in part to smoked bacon in the beans, bell peppers and tomato paste in the meat, and the delicious way the rice absorbs those beefy juices.

Try to make a reservation at this neighbor to a low-slung motor lodge. La Caraquena's snug green booths can accommodate a mere 32 diners at a time. (There are more seats outside, but their availability depends on the weather.) The low-ceilinged dining room is tidy and cheerful, almost homelike in its coziness; yellow alternates with green on the walls, which are dressed up with photographs of Venezuela taken by an artist-friend of the chef. The bongos, congas and maracas sitting in the corner? Claros calls music his second passion. "I practice between lunch and dinner" and sometimes play for guests, he says.

If the chef's jam sessions are anything like the concerts on his plates, I want to be in the audience.

* * *

What it all means: The restaurant's name simply denotes a woman from Caracas, Venezuela's capital. La Caraquea was also the name Claros's parents gave to their two restaurants, in Bolivia and Venezuela.