The waitress approached our table in the front window of Arepas Pues, her face flush and her expression slightly embarrassed. She had just sampled the house hot sauce, the one you have to request or they’ll hand you a bottle of the commercial stuff. My dining companion and I had been raving about the homemade condiment’s combination of fruitiness and supernova heat.
Perhaps we should have been more circumspect around the server, who had told us flat out that she’s not a chili head. Clearly, curiosity overcame her back in the kitchen. She had returned to our table to, in essence, file a report on her hot sauce tasting: She was waving a hand in front of her face, the color of a freshly steamed lobster. Although she could barely cough out the words, she stated the obvious: “Too hot for me!” She was laughing at her own heat intolerance, and I was charmed down to the tips of my toes at her mettle and humility.
There’s no question about it: The hot sauce at Arepas Pues in Silver Spring is blistering. Should you try it — and you should — you’ll soon know how crab meat feels when pasteurized at high heat. To many Colombians, the condiment is an indispensable part of eating arepas and other dishes, serving the same role as salsa on Mexican tacos or aji sauce on Peruvian rotisserie chicken. It completes the bite.
Arepas Pues owner and chef Nicolas Arcila calls the condiment “very hot pink sauce,” which sort of sounds like a website you shouldn’t visit. But the sauce is just a molten, habanero-and-Trinidad-scorpion-pepper-spiked riff on a traditional condiment, salsa rosada, which Colombians slather onto their beloved hot dogs and other snacks. If you haven’t guessed by now, Arcila is a Colombian native.
The serial entrepreneur — Arcila has operated multiple restaurants, served as a promoter for Colombian bands and still runs a Colombian bakery and market in Silver Spring — has stretched himself with his latest venture. Arepas Pues isn’t limited to Colombian dishes. The 40-seat restaurant also serves Venezuelan and Cuban fare. The former cuisine makes sense, of course. Venezuela shares a border and culinary DNA with its neighbor. But Cuban cooking?
It seems to run in the family. The chef’s brother-in-law hails from the island and has taught Arcila a few things about the Cuban kitchen, including how to whip up a mean mojo, the garlicky condiment liberally slathered on almost everything. I pounded down way too many fried plantain chips one evening — each yellow strip cut semi-thick for a pleasing chew — with a combination of mojo and very hot pink sauce. It was chips and salsa, Cuban style, and I worked my arm so much I was in danger of repetitive stress syndrome.
As the name implies, Arcila’s place focuses on arepas, the stuffed masa cake found in both Venezuela and Colombia. As with almost any dish available in multiple countries — empanadas leap to mind — there has been a friendly rivalry between Venezuela and Colombia over which nation makes the better arepa. I’m not about to put myself in the middle of that conflict, but I will say this: Arcila typically takes a leaner Colombian approach in preparing his arepas. Few of the arepas I sampled looked like those colorful, overstuffed pockets that Venezuelans often call sandwiches.
The closest I came to the Venezuelan model was a third-trimester corn cake called reina pepiada, which Arcila translates into the PG-rated “beauty queen,” even if others have spelled out the term in more PG-13 language, like “curvy queen” or “pimped-out queen.” Whatever you call it, the arepa comes packed with a creamy avocado-and-chicken salad that benefits from both very hot pink sauce and the good, griddled corn shell, at once thick and crispy.
Arepas Pues offers its namesake snack one of two ways: tricked out in a dozen-plus house preparations or as a stuff-your-own shell featuring 19 ingredients for the filling. The house-made arepas are a greatest hits compilation from Venezuela and Colombia; among my favorites are La Sureña (a shell wedged tight with grilled chicken, chorizo and avocado), La de Pernil (roasted pork shoulder with tomato and spicy sauce) and the pupusa-like arepa de queso, a Colombian specialty. While spare, the plain cheese arepa has one significant benefit over the others: No bite comes up empty of filling, a common issue with the Venezuela-style arepas.
Soups are a highlight at this masa-heavy shop. The chupe de pollo Caraqueño, a gift from Venezuela, goes down like a lightly seasoned cream of chicken soup until you discover the white paisa cheese embedded in the bowl, these tiny depth charges of milkiness. Not to be outdone, the Colombian ajiaco is a rustic, slow-cooked chicken soup that naturally thickens as its three-potato mixture breaks down in the broth. You can doctor the bowl to your preferred level of richness and saltiness with the accompanying condiments, including avocado and capers. Needless to say: More is more.
The gray meat plates generally suffer from too much heat and too little seasoning. The sobrebarriga en salsa, a Colombian carnival of a dish, is notable for encircling flank steak with a vibrant spectrum of sides and sauce, all of which add almost nothing to the well-done meat. The bandeja paisa, a carnivorous Andean dish with a half ring of chicharron, could have suffered a similar fate if not for the fried egg that enriched the dry meats. A major exception to my Meat Theory is the paradigm-shifting Colombian tamal, a bulky mass of masa stained yellow with a saffron spice mix and stuffed with bone-in chicken and other delicacies.
But what did I expect? The place is not called Carne Pues. Arcila tells me the restaurant’s name translates into, more or less, “arepas, of course.” But in casual conversation, he adds, the phrase assumes an air of exclamation. As in this call-and-response:
“Would you like arepas?”
Just make sure the very hot pink sauce is stationed nearby.
8555 Fenton St., Silver Spring. 240-670-8020.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Silver Spring, with a 0.3-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Arepas and appetizers, $1.75-$8.50; entrees, $7-$19.