Meet the arepa, the Venezuelan and Colombian specialty slowly spreading around Chicago

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.”

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