How popular are arepas, the little fried corn cakes sold on street corners in Venezuela? Back in 2010, President Hugo Chavez introduced "socialist areperas" to ensure that the country's most famous export didn't fall into capitalist clutches. He even extended an invite to President Obama to come and share one with him.
If you've stumbled upon a good one -- a circular shell of fried masa split open like a fresh clam, oozing melted cheese and stuffed with anything from shredded beef to scrambled eggs -- you'll probably understand why it's a snack food worthy of diplomatic negotiations.
Lately, we've been fascinated by the palm-sized arepas at Amazones in Koreatown, a small café located a block from the sprawling Koreatown Galleria and about a half-dozen good Korean jiggae joints. The restaurant is run by a mother/daughter team who opened the space a few months ago, retrofitting what was essentially a corner bodega with a few tables and a wide deli case stocked with aguas frescas and caramel-laced flan. Listed on the menu alongside hulking beef burritos and chicken fajitas is a curious selection of Venezuelan antojitos -- snack foods. There are crispy empanadas packed dense with mashed plantains and laced with shrimp, or little corn breakfast crepes folded with ham and cheese, grilled shut and topped with crema and crumbled white cheese.
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There are more substantial items, too. The parrilla mixta, a miniaturized Weber grill stacked with pork chops, sausages, a fat T-bone steak, chicken and crunchy arepitas, is decent enough, mostly because it's saturated with enough olive oil and garlic to perfume the entire building. A patacon sandwich, made with flattened, fried green plantains instead of bread, is messy enough to put even the most formidable Italian grinder to shame. Imagine a towering croque madame burnished with mustard and mayo, slices of avocado, and fortified with an additional scoop of spicy braised beef -- you'd be lucky to escape with a clean shirt.
It's those handheld arepas that are the most endearing, though. Each one is patted out by hand in the kitchen and fried to a high crunch in a well-oiled pan. The reina pepida, a kind of mayo-slicked chicken salad mashed with avocado, and the domino, spread with thick black beans and melted cheese, can be found on most tables or, more often, stuffed into stiff paper bags to go. For dessert there is homemade chicha, a creamy drinkable pudding that falls somewhere between horchata and arroz con leche.