For a number of reasons, arepas are having a moment in Chicago. Give the dish a try at one of the half-dozen spots serving it around town, and you may wonder what took so long. Though the squat pancake of griddled corn flour can seem humble and plain at first, when split open and stuffed to the breaking point with a bounty of braised meat and tangy shredded cheese, it transforms into one awe-inspiring and ludicrously messy sandwich.
“It’s like the traditional Venezuelan sandwich that you find on every corner,” says Pedro Ron, who co-owns BienMeSabe. The restaurant started three years ago in Ravenswood (1637 W. Montrose Ave.) but just opened up a quick-service version a few weeks ago in the Loop (29 E. Adams St.), bringing the South American specialty downtown. If it had been open during my hunt for the best lunches in the Loop, it certainly would have made the cut.
But it’s also impossible to talk about arepas without mentioning the current chaos in Venezuela. The arepa is the national dish of that country, and many of the people currently serving it are only in Chicago because they had to make the difficult decision to leave their home. “Venezuela has a bad government, so we decided to move here,” says Ron. “(The United States is) a different country, and it has very different weather, but I had the opportunity to start a business here.”
Maria Uzcategui, who co-owns Rica Arepa (4253 W. Armitage Ave.) in Hermosa with her husband, Kharim Rincon, has a similar story: “It’s really hard to be there right now. For young people, you can’t have a business.”
Uzcategui and Rincon tried a number of odd jobs when they first came to Chicago a few years ago; she worked for a while as a cleaner, and he tried construction. But the two had a background in the restaurant industry in Venezuela and wanted to get back into that field. “He studied to be a chef, and I was a server in restaurants,” says Uzcategui. “We have this knowledge, so we decided to sell arepas on the streets.”
As Uzcategui explains, arepas aren’t just popular in Venezuela; they are everywhere. “We eat arepas for breakfast and dinner,” says Uzcategui. “(In Venezuela), your mom teaches you how to make an arepa when you are 5.”
Squint, and arepas appear to resemble Mexican gorditas, though they differ in a few important ways. Gorditas, as well as tortillas, are made with masa, a ground corn mixture that is treated with lime (the process is called nixtamalization). Arepas are made from corn that has been soaked and then ground. These days, most people buy arepa flour, a dehydrated mixture that makes the cooking process much quicker.
Rincon let me into the kitchen at Rica Arepa to see how it’s done. He starts with arepa flour (he prefers the P.A.N. brand), which he mixes with water and a little salt to form a wet dough. He pulls off a piece, shapes it into a ball and weighs it to ensure a consistent size. Then he flattens it by hand into a pancake shape and places it on a griddle, where it cooks for 5 minutes or so on each side. When pulled off, the arepa has a crackly golden-brown exterior. Rincon then takes a knife and slices horizontally along one side of the arepa to open it. A gust of steam rises out of the arepa. It’s now ready for any number of different fillings.
Often, that’s something very simple, like a little cheese or some beans, but my favorite kind is known as the pabellon. This creation combines ultra-tender braised beef, creamy black beans, sweet fried plantains and tangy cheese in one phenomenal package. Sure, it starts to buckle under the weight after a few bites, and keeping your hands totally clean during the eating process is basically impossible, but here in Chicago, home of the Italian beef, we are used to dealing with unwieldy sandwiches.
After visiting Rica Arepa, I became hooked and started looking for other arepa shops. Along with BienMeSabe, I found a great arepa at 11 Degree North (824 W. Belmont Ave.), a Venezuelan cafe in Lakeview. I also noticed the dish at a number of Colombian restaurants. Turns out it’s a national obsession there too. But there are differences.
According to Juan Betancourt, the owner of ArePa George (1552 N. Kedzie Ave.), a Colombian restaurant in Humboldt Park, “Arepas are a side dish for Colombia, and in some parts of the country, they don’t cut it open.” Instead, they’ll serve the arepas simply with butter, or place the meat and cheese on top. But he actually grew up in a part of Colombia where the arepas were split and filled, which is how he serves them at his restaurant.
Betancourt used to be a math teacher, but his passion was food. “I always cooked for my friends and family, and whenever I made arepas, they’d ask me, ‘When are you making them again?'” says Betancourt. After growing tired of the long commute to the South Side and the workload, he decided to try his own restaurant, which he named after his dad. “He still lives in Colombia, where he works for the government,” says Betancourt. He believes part of the responsibility of the restaurant is to educate people about where he was born: “I want people to know more about Colombia.”
Both Betancourt and Uzcategui acknowledge that they had to adapt to appeal to the local clientele. One thing I wasn’t expecting was that people in Venezuela and Colombia don’t particularly enjoy spicy food. “Venezuelans don’t like spicy,” says Uzcategui. “So that’s new for us. But spicy food appeals to the neighborhood, which is mostly Mexican and Puerto Rican. People love it.” Rica Arepa serves a spicy green sauce, along with a more traditional creamy garlic one.
Betancourt agrees. “Colombians don’t eat spicy food,” he says. “They prefer more sweet sauces with food.”
Regardless of whether you like your arepa spicy or not, there’s little doubt that you’ll be seeing more of the South American dish around Chicago. Though Pedro Ron wouldn’t say for sure when, he does want to open more locations of BienMeSabe. But currently, he’s focusing on the Loop location, which had a line that stretched out the door when I visited. “Maybe by the end of the year,” says Ron.
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