Sundays at the Mar Vista Farmers Market are an Angeleno food lover's paradise. Aside from all of the gorgeous fruits and vegetables to choose from, there’s also a block’s worth of food stands that provide tasty offerings showcasing the fresh locally grown ingredients the market has to offer.
Something new has been creating a buzz around the MVFM these past few weeks. Chef Mercedes Rojas and her brother Zeus Ferrini have teamed up to create the Arepa Stand, giving us a glimpse into an important staple of their Venezuelan heritage by putting the Arepa center stage, keeping a family tradition alive and taking it to a whole new level.
What is an arepa, you ask? It’s a corn pancake that can be filled or stuffed with a variety of sweet or savory ingredients and has its origins in Venezuela and Colombia.
“All of this familial tradition of cooking came from my Grandma Mercedes on my dad’s side, who passed away when I was too young to remember,” Rojas tells L.A. Weekly. “But she taught my mom and dad how to cook, and all this knowledge got passed down to me. She even hand-wrote a cookbook that I am so proud to have and be able to reference for inspiration.”
We asked how this concept was born. Rojas says, “The idea to make and sell arepas was always in my head. I would make them for staff meal from time to time when I was the chef de cuisine at Lucques. I’d make the arepas and toppings and all of us cooks would do an assembly line to stuff them together, and it became a fun family meal tradition. We would joke around saying that one day I would have an arepa stand or truck and we would all get back together and cook.”
The sibling duo have come up with a menu of unique offerings. “Our ingredients, from the beans to the vegetables and fruits, are sourced from the Santa Monica and Mar Vista farmers markets,” Ferrini says. “So many of the farms have supported us, are some of our closest friends and give the arepa stand life."
Rojas describes the menu: The Cheester "in Venezuela would be our grilled cheese. We change the cheeses every week ... usually all cow's cheese, mixed milk, yellow, sharp white and a type of queso fresco."
The Venice, which is vegan, includes black beans, sweet plantains, arugula, cilantro and avocado. (Add cheese and make it even better, though no longer vegan.) They say the traditional version of this is called Pabellon and it has brisket. "We switched it up and incorporated more veggies instead."
The Westsider contains a chicken salad made with avocado and mayo, traditionally called "Reina Pepiada." They evolved this recipe by char-grilling the chicken, imparting a smoky flavor, with homemade mayo, jalapeños, cumin, lots of lime, puree of parsley, cilantro and avocado. It's one of the first of the four variations to have sold out each week.
And last but certainly not least...
The Brisket, which is one of their mother's favorite recipes. "We used to spend hours shredding the braised beef together to make the 'carne mechada,' and takes about 15 hours to make, braising it overnight and then crisping up after shredding with onions, peppers, cilantro and jus. This arepa is loaded with a lot of meat and cotija cheese."
The next best thing after getting your arepa are the sauces: garlic sauce, which has aioli and Lebanese yogurt, and guasacaca, made with avocado, vinegar, cilantro, peppers and parsley
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Bringing one's culinary story to life isn't always easy. When we asked Rojas how it is working with her brother and starting a family business, she says, "Zeus is the most honest person I know," and he's her biggest supporter in both food and life. Ferrini is also the one who came up with the name and logo for the stand.
The chefs say each week there's a new challenge to face and something they can do better. "None of these are bad things. They keep us motivated to push harder because we love arepas so much. Surrounding yourself with a good team, people that have your back and people that believe in you and that love what they do as much as you do, makes things easier." Together, they push each other to succeed. The amount of heart and soul the siblings put into the Arepa Stand resonates through everything they cook together.
So what are their plans for the future of the Arepa Stand? The chefs say that opening a restaurant or a food truck would be a dream come true. "We do love the Mar Vista Farmers Market community and look forward to our Sunday market day. We're working on branching out to more farmers market days once we get settled at Mar Vista."