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.
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.
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."
Arepas originated in pre-Columbian indigenous tribes. As the country modernized, people began to prefer bread. Then, in the 1950s, the Portuguese immigrant community reversed the trend, according to Carvajal. "Somehow, they saw this happening and capitalized on it," he says. "They opened tiny places, and people started eating arepas again." Areperas became inventive, stuffing the patties with a variety of ingredients to match every taste.
The Venezuelan arepa has numerous cornmeal counterparts in other Latin American countries. Colombia also serves arepas, though they are often more flat, thick and dense than the fluffy, moist Venezuelan kind found at Bolívar. In Mexico, common corn products include tortillas, gorditas and tamales. El Salvador serves pupusas. Some countries make cornmeal empanadas.
Carvajal didn't always cook Venezuelan food. "Back home, the kids weren't allowed in the kitchen," he says. "I was never even allowed to fry an egg." Once in L.A., he asked his great-grandmother for recipes, hoping to alleviate homesickness. "But grandmas don't tell you 'use two tablespoons' ... it's 'a little of this, a little of that,' all these weird things," says Carvajal. He began experimenting.
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Art school pushed him into the restaurant business. As a photography student at California State University Long Beach, Carvajal helped plan events that mixed student art exhibitions with cultural food and music. They were successful, he says, and became the inspiration for Bolívar. He opened the café in 2001 with Norine Sakai, a fellow student.
The cafe, named for Venezuelan hero Simón Bolívar, 18th-century liberator of much of South America from Spain, also is part gallery. Carvajal reserves one long white wall for art displays that rotate every few weeks. On our last visit, Ernie Lucero's collection of black-and-white linocut prints, called "Our Lady of the Lowrider," was on view.
Carvajal may draw on his art background for the café's next project. Finally, after 10 years, Bolívar Café and Gallery is putting up a sign.