A blend of tastes in a homey setting: La Caraqueña's pan-Latin staples sing
** (out of four stars; Good)
Sound check: 68 decibels/Conversation is easy.
Salteñas -- 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 Caraqueña 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 salteñas and arepas," says the chef, now 28.
Practice makes more or less perfect at La Caraqueña, at least as far as those headliners are concerned.
The chef's fist-size salteñas 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 jalapeños, 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 salteñas. 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?