Latin American Cuisine

Cafe Bolívar's 10th Anniversary, With Arepas

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Mon, Jan 23, 2012 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Arepa with pepper, duck bacon and mozzarella - D. SOLOMON
  • D. Solomon
  • Arepa with pepper, duck bacon and mozzarella
In December, Bolívar Café and Gallery celebrated two achievements. First, its 10th anniversary as a small, bustling Santa Monica café. Second, the arrival of a custom-made arepa machine, and the reappearance -- after a year hiatus -- of this Venezuelan dish. "On the first day we made over 200," says owner José Carvajal. "And we haven't stopped since."

Yes, the arepas -- cornmeal patties split lengthwise and filled like a sandwich with ingredients such as panela cheese, chicken and avocado -- are that popular. At least, among locals in the know. Bolívar doesn't advertise. And not a single sign marks its unassuming white façade on Ocean Park Blvd. So it's noteworthy that Bolívar has persisted for 10 years, even enduring the rough economic climate. It also survived a recent legal dispute between Carvajal and his then-co-owner.

click to enlarge "Arepas are back" - D. SOLOMON
  • D. Solomon
  • "Arepas are back"
Bolívar regulars represent an eclectic mix. Musicians, writers, and visual artists. KCRW personalities and neighboring business owners. Kids, tweens and teens, along with their parents. Venezuelan expats and other immigrants, both recent and long-established. Faculty and students from Santa Monica College a few blocks away.

The people come for soups, sandwiches, salads, bagels, muffins and pastries, plus smoothies, coffees and teas including Argentine yerba mate. For a taste of Venezuela, they eat arepas.

Carvajal knows of only two other arepa spots in L.A. -- the Copa Café in Beverly Hills and downtown's Pattern Bar, which opened in August. A Santa Ana eatery, Mil Jugos, also sells them. Otherwise, arepas are not your ubiquitous taco.

click to enlarge New arepa maker - ALEJANDRO RODRIGUEZ
  • Alejandro Rodriguez
  • New arepa maker
Traditionally, one cooks the corn patties on a stove. Café Bolivar doesn't have a full kitchen, so it relies on an arepa maker plugged into the wall (similar to a waffle press). Eventually, the machine gave out from overuse. Bolívar needed an upgrade, so Carvajal commissioned a custom-made, industrial-grade arepa maker that can cook eight at once -- two times as many as the old machine.

Carvajal is now planning new varieties. One features roasted pepper, duck bacon and mozzarella. Anothr, pancetta and burrata. Shredded beef cooked in tomato broth is another possibility. And Carvajal is excited about a tribute to Mexican cuisine with cochinita pibil and mole. For now, Carvajal will be introducing the new versions on Saturdays. (Bolívar is open weekdays, 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.) Original styles are black beans and cheese, ham and cheese, tuna and avocado, mango, panela cheese and avocado, and chicken salad with avocado.

Bolívar serves arepas with a side of cilantro sauce. Many customers beg for the recipe, which Carvajal learned from his grandmother. He won't give it away, but says the ingredients are simple: cilantro, garlic, white onion, olive oil, salt and pepper.

Arepas dominate the streets of Caracas, where Carvajal grew up before moving here at age 17 in 1986. "Arepa stands in Caracas are like hot dog carts in New York," he says. "People want something to grab and go."

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