We think Venezuelan arepas are one of the most perfect foods: a carb-y masa shell, perfectly handheld, filled to the brim with tasty fillings (often including cheese!). Due to this perfect formula, it is no surprise then that arepas are increasingly popular worldwide. We even had arepas in Porto, Portugal (not to mention a few times in Chicago and Cleveland). One of my favorite arepa joints is located off the beaten path in Astoria, Queens, Arepas Cafe (33-07 36th Ave, Astoria, NY 11106). Lucky for me, Arepas Cafe is located conveniently near my cousin’s place, so I get to go there whenever I visit NYC.
Arepas Cafe is a humble storefront that does a brisk takeout business. We started out our lunch with my favorite Venezuelan drink, the limeade-like, Papelón con limón ($3.50), which is like the best, sweetest version of lemonade you have ever had (or the Brazilian “Swiss lemonade”). For appetizers you can get mini versions of arepas, empanadas, and cachapas (fresh corn pancakes) or the classic fried yucca ($5 for any). Though the arepas are the main draw, you can also get heartier meat entrees including the Venezuelan national dish Pabellón Criollo ($13) – shredded beef, white rice, black beans, cheese and fried sweet plantains.
The bulk of the menu is made up of arepa varieties (All of the arepas are $8 or less). There are combos for vegetarians and meat eaters alike – and we really enjoyed the Arepa Pabellón Pernil – roast pork with black beans, white cheddar and fried sweet plantains and the Guayanesa Tropical – Guyanese cheese (white fresh cheese), fried sweet plantains and avocado (pictured above). The pernil was tender and juicy and the sweet platanos maduros complemented the fresh cheese particularly well. Beyond our favorites, you can also get arepas filled with cheese, mushrooms, black beans, tuna, shrimp, chicken and more (I included my favorite arepa infographic above to give you some potential combination ideas). Arepas Cafe’s arepas are generously sized and delicious, and we have never been disappointed by our selections. Arepas Cafe is an absolute steal for NYC, and is the perfect place for a quick, hearty lunch.
When we go to NYC, we always enjoy getting arepas – Venezuelan corn masa patties with a variety of fillings – but we didn’t really have a go-to arepa spot in Chicago (pupusas, yes, but not arepas). When we were back in town, my sister recommended we try BienMeSabe (1637 W Montrose Ave, Chicago, IL 60613) in Ravenswood, a new arepas spot that has been making waves in the Chicago food scene. Apparently, it is even becoming a go-to place for MLB players from Venezuela. The inside of BienMeSabe is clean and simple, and an attractive seating option is the large outdoor patio. BienMeSabe was so new, that when we visited, the mural they were putting up on the wall was not even finished being painted. Another key feature of BienMeSabe is that it is BYOB. When we got there on Sunday for lunch, many people were enjoying the BYOB option on the patio.
BienMeSabe’s menu mostly consists of arepas with a variety of veggie and meat toppings, each running between $8 and 10. We sampled the Reina Pepiada (Chicken Avocado Salad & Gouda Cheese), Caribbean (Caribbean Cheese, Plantain & Avocado), and the After Party (Roasted Pork, Gouda Cheese, Avocado slices). If you are not in the mood for arepas, there are also meat-heavy mains including grilled steak, fish, and the national dish of Venezuela, Pabellon Criollo. We began our meal with the shrimp tostones and the fried yuca. The shrimp tostones consisted of grilled shrimp on top of fried green plantains, and were particularly good, we really loved the spicy avocado-based Guasacaca salsa. We were also excited to see that we could get some classic Venezuelan drinks: chicha – a rice milk drink similar to Mexican horchata, and papelon con limon limeade.
The areaps are decently sized for the price, and they are not stingy with the fillings. The arepa toppings were good overall, but a little bit of a hit or miss. The roast pork on the After Party was flavorful and tender, and we think it was our favorite arepa of the day. Though the fried plantains on the Caribbean arepa were delicious, there was just too much of the somewhat flavorless shredded cheese. And for me to say there is too much cheese, there really has to have been a lot. Despite this, we really enjoyed the arepas overall and we are happy to have a Venezuelan place in the hood. We will definitely be back to BienMeSabe to sample some of the other arepa varieties and maybe a tres leches cake!