Think of Venezuela’s arepas as South American Hot Pockets on steroids. Much like their flatter, distant cousin, the pita, the puffed corn-flour rounds are meant to be stuffed with savory fillings and chomped down — probably messily — while grasped in your hands.
“If you eat arepas the right way, you’ll need a lot of napkins,” says Raul Claros, the Caracas-born chef/owner of La Caraqueña in Falls Church, which offers a dozen varieties of the street food, packed with combos such as sifrina (chicken-avocado salad with mayo), perico (scrambled eggs with peppers) and grilled steak, pictured below.
“They’re a great vehicle for so many toppings,” says Graham Bartlett, regional executive chef for Latin-fusion restaurants Zengo and Toro Toro, who turns out cocktail-size versions that are topped, not stuffed, with spiced pork or shrimp and calamari.
Arepas star precooked corn flour, commonly Colombian-milled, Venezuelan-style Harina P.A.N. (arepas are also popular in Colombia). Mixed and kneaded with water, salt and oil, the polenta-like stuff forms a pliable, unsticky dough that you roll into balls and pat into 4- to 6-inch rounds. The circles are then griddled (or deep-fried) until “they get golden and crispy outside and smooshy inside,” says Ali Arellano, a Caraqueño who started the Northern Virginia-based Arepa Zone food truck with his girlfriend, Gabriela Febres, also from Venezuela.
After the arepas are cooked, chefs use a knife or kitchen shears to open one side of the circle, then stuff it to overflowing with meat, cheese, avocado or seafood. “It should look like a Pac-Man,” Claros says. The resulting dish starts with a corn crunch yielding to a creamy, often rich interior.
“Arepas aren’t complicated or sophisticated — they’re our soul food,” says Febres of Arepa Zone, which sticks to homey fillings: spiced, shredded chicken; avocados; and, nearly always, queso de mano, a shredded, soft white cheese . The lines that form in front of the lemon-hued truck offer a vibe similar to that at Caracas areperias, all-hours counters that pat out, griddle and stuff the snacks at surprising speed. “At home, arepas are like our daily bread,” Claros says. “They’re for breakfast, lunch and at 3 a.m. after clubbing!”