by Mary Luz Mejia
If recently revived restaurateur/environmental designer Eduardo Lee and his partner Marc Lukacs have it their way, the whole of Toronto will soon be turning tothe arepa, a Venezuelan style staple, as the comfort food of choice. A what? An arepa is the most popular snack, pre and post-party fare in Venezuela and Colombia, although the two countries prepare the delicious little cornmeal “sandwiches” differently. In Venezuela, Lee’s birth country, the golden discs are stuffed with tasty fillings like shredded beef or pork, cheese or a savoury chicken salad. And it’s this kind of portable, delicious, and gooey good fare that their recently opened Arepa Café makes so well.
My Food Lover’s Companion text doesn’t define the ubiquitous arepa; but rest assured that sandwiched amidst corn meal mixed with water and salt (in true Caracas style) that’s grilled and griddled, then stuffed with fillings, is a true taste of Venezuela. And that’s the whole point of Arepa Café – to bring a bit of “Venezuelan Urbanity” to Toronto, and to reflect the urban environment in which the sleek café finds itself. Poised to tempt taste buds in the heart of Queen Street West, with a funky sign that simply reads “Arepera” (code for “we make arepas here!” in Spanish), Arepa Café is doing just that.
Lee and Lukacs’ Arepera was conceived as an idea over a year and a half ago. A hungry Lee walked around Kensington Market when he was doing some design work for Torito Tapas Bar and thought it would be ideal to be able to grab an arepa. Prior to that seminal moment, Lee spent time in New York City where areperas abound. That got him thinking – why not offer the same to Toronto? A month-long research stint in Caracas’s best areperas sealed the deal.
Back in Toronto, the duo worked with Colombian-Venezuelan Chef Carlos Fuenmayor of Sabrosito Catering to come up with the fillings and some of the menu. The result includes Lee’s favourite – the Reina Pepiada (savoury chicken salad with avocado), which apart from being delicious, has a glam pedigree. “It was an arepa named after Susana Duijm, the first Venezuelan Miss World. A famous arepero from Caracas invented this delicious filling in 1959, and after she won, he decided to name it The Queen (Reina) after her, and Pepiada after the nickname curvy women were given back then,” explains Lee. Lukacs likes them all, but says the seafood options – the salt cod (Bacalao) and the Pulpo (or octopus) are his favourites.
Looking around the packed café on a Saturday afternoon, it seems that Latinos and Canadians alike agree that arepas should be one of Toronto’s new comfort foods. Beside us, a couple from Ottawa dig into their arepas, served with a side of Chayote Slaw. A gaggle of Venezuelan girls burst in, a little more than excited to have discovered an arepera in Toronto and, behind them, a few food industry folks take in the place and all it has to offer. From Caracas style arepas, dulce de leche layered alfajores (shortbread like cookies), to other Latin treats made by Venezuelan-Italian pastry chef Jose Arato, Arepa Café hopes to become a sort of cultural community centre for Latinos and a hot-spot for people who just like good food.
It’s Lee’s hope that this project based on his own “nostalgia and pride,” resonates with anyone in the GTA (and beyond) that hankers for a piece of Venezuelan Urbanity, wrapped around corn masa, with a side of designer-nuanced chic. Oh and don’t forget the Spanish language tunes of the 70s – the ones my dad played so lovingly when I was a kid. I’ll wash that down with a malta cola and take a bar of Venezuelan “El Rey” chocolate home to keep the Latin warmth with me when I step back out onto Queen Street.
Mary Luz Mejia is a food writer, food TV producer and now, principal, in her new venture Sizzling Communications (www.sizzlingcommunications.com) with her husband, Mario Stojanac. Just wait to see what else they bring Toronto!