It's the summer of the arepa in Washington: The traditional South American corn patties are turning up on menus at new and high-end restaurants, and even winning funding in a food-entrepreneur competition.
Arepas "have been by far our most popular item since we opened [in June]," said Paul Carlson of the Royal in LeDroit Park.
With roots in Venezuela and Colombia, arepas begin with a dough made from precooked cornmeal or corn flour, which is typically formed into a round cake and cooked on a griddle before being split and filled either as a sandwich or pocket.
There are certain characteristics that any good arepa should have, three local proponents say:
1) Cooking to order is the key to guaranteeing the correct texture, said Gabriela Febres, who runs the Arepa Zone food truck with business partner Ali Arellano. An unfilled arepa will quickly harden, while pre-filling will lead to a soggy corn cake.
Arepa Zone offers traditional Venezuelan fillings ($6-$8.50) including shredded beef, cheese and chicken salad. The most popular of Arepa Zone's 13 combinations, Febres said, is the Pabellón, a mix of shredded beef, plantains, queso fresco and black beans that is a riff on Venezuela's national dish.
2) The outside should be crispy and the inside moist, said the Royal's Carlson, whose Colombian heritage inspired the arepas on the menu at the coffee shop-eatery-bar that he and his family opened.
The Royal's morning offerings feature a simple cheese and butter arepa ($4) and a fried-egg arepa ($7) with tomato, avocado and cotija cheese. In the afternoon and evening, the Royal sells a version with roasted beef, avocado and pepper jack cheese ($12), as well as a cheese arepa ($6) stuffed before, rather than after, it hits the griddle.
"We like to do a lot of the traditional things," Carlson said, though some different specials may pop up occasionally.
3) A good arepa is simple, but its fillings can be anything but.
"Arepas are fun street-food sandwiches," said Victor Albisu, chef-owner of Chinatown's Del Campo, which recently debuted an arepa menu with 12 varieties. Albisu's version centers around "elevated flavors and ingredients" that depart from from what you'd find most home cooks making. His arepas ($5-$9), available at Del Campo's bar and patio, are filled with such combinations as lobster salad and smoked trout caviar, grilled octopus and potato, and banh mi with carrot slaw.
Albisu also incorporates eggs into his biscuit-like dough, and makes the corn cakes smaller than is traditional to encourage diners to sample multiple flavors. And like Carlson, Albisu prefers his arepas with a noticeable presence of salt, the better for pairing with a drink.
So why the local arepa wave? No one seems to have a definitive answer.
Febres attributed it in part to "the novelty of the whole thing," but says that unlike when Arepa Zone started in 2014, most of her customers now know what an arepa is. In fact, Arepa Zone is on the verge of expanding into a brick-and-mortar location after it won Mess Hall's Launch Pad competition earlier this year. It takes over the Ris stall at Union Market on Aug. 29, with a launch party taking place at Mess Hall on Saturday.
"What people are doing is elevated comfort food. This is another example of it," Albisu said. "It's a vehicle for having fun and enjoying food. I wouldn’t overthink it too much."
Del Campo, 777 I St. NW, 202-289-7377. delcampodc.com.
The Royal, 501 Florida Ave. NW, 202-332-7777. theroyaldc.com.