review by MEGAN BETZ
Having introduced Bloomington to arepas, traditional Venezuelan corn patties (imagine a tamale crossed with a tortilla) via Juancho’s Munchies food truck, owners Juan Palacios and Darlene Gonzalez are now bringing Venezuelan cuisine and culture to downtown Bloomington with a brick-and-mortar space that opened in April.
Arepas Venezuelan Gastropub, 254 N. Walnut, allows the duo to share more of Venezuela with their customers. For Palacios and Gonzalez, that means a menu of family recipes, a laid-back atmosphere, and hospitality in the form of affordable prices and generous portions. It’s showing customers, as Gonzalez explains, that “not all Hispanic food is spicy” and “it goes further down than Mexico.”
The new establishment offers multiple points of entry. Head to the bar for signature cocktails and, soon, a bar menu of traditional pasapalos, Venezuelan appetizers. Head to the food counter for the arepas experience.
The round, corn-based bread is sliced to create a pocket that’s filled with hearty protein and topped with fresh vegetables. While arepas have been a staple among indigenous Venezuelans for centuries, areparas, shops specializing in these sandwiches, became popular during 20th century industrialization. Describing the finished product, Palacios holds his hands up like a wide-open clamshell. “If it doesn’t look like this,” he said, “it’s not [from] an arepera.”
Arepas’ menu is easily accessible to those eating gluten free (though, as in most restaurants, deep-fried selections are fried in the same oil as wheat-based products) and vegetarians can find hearty, flavorful options as well. To start, guests choose between the arepa or a rice base. While rice has emerged as the universal base for this style of dining, the arepa is a refreshing change, with a distinct texture and thickness that holds up the amount of food it’s asked to carry.
The arepa is everything you want from fast-casual dining; It’s portable, a bit messy, and workable with a range of fillings. Among my friends, the winning combinations were skirt steak and black beans, chorizo and avocado, and the arepa version of pabellón criollo—Venezuelan steak with black beans and rice. You can build this classic as a rice bowl—adding shredded beef, black beans, fried plantains, and a sprinkle of Latin white cheese—or swap the rice for an arepa.
Gonzalez urges customers to branch out from familiar flavors by trying hard-boiled quail eggs or the Reina Pepiada, their take on chicken salad: chicken, mayonnaise, and avocado with cubed tomato. And don’t skip the butter! “The flavor is completely different once you add the butter,” Gonzalez said.
A display case offers fried treats like tequeños (Venezuelan cheese sticks with queso blanco wrapped in bread dough) and meat-filled empanadas and pastelitos. Gonzalez distinguishes between the two pastries by their crust. Venezuelan empanadas are made with a corn-based dough while pastelitos are wrapped in wheat. Coming in pairs or sets of three, both scratch that deep-fried itch as a shareable appetizer or make easy grab-and-go snacks as you head back to business downtown.
Hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 11 a.m. to midnight. Tuesday and Wednesday; and 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. For more information, visit arepasgastro.com.