The man who taught me how to eat was not a trained chef.
But the late Gustavo Rojas did enjoy spending time in the kitchen.
He strived to instill in his children an appreciation for home-cooked meals, family dinners and, perhaps most of all, the cultural traditions that bound us to our ancestors.
Which is why on any given weekend morning of my youth you would likely find him cha-cha-ing with the stove, his favorite Oscar D'León album playing in the background, one hand wrapped around his coffee mug and the other carefully sliding hand-made corn patties into furiously boiling oil. He’d take a sip, sing along for a few verses, then slowly fish out the gorgeously bronzed cakes with long-handled tongs, all so that his still-slumbering family could roll right out of bed and enjoy the most lovingly crafted breakfast spread this side of the Equator.
I’ve eaten my share of arepas since his untimely passing in early 2013.
And with every mouthful — whether consumed at a kiosk operating in the shadow of a Las Vegas overpass, at a free-roaming cart slinging ready-made constructs in Bean Town or a family-run restaurant in Tampa catering almost exclusively to Caribbean expats — I’m constantly searching for that rush I felt the first time I sunk my teeth into the suddenly trendy snack.
Oye Mi Canto For those who’ve yet to lift a still warm arepa to their lips, the question is: What are you waiting for?
According to Adriana López Vermut, a Caracas-born cultural anthropologist turned restaurateur, the arepa has been a staple of the Venezuelan diet dating back to pre-colonial times.
While not quite an indigenous tribesman, my father was born and raised in the tropical storm-prone southeast corner of the country. While growing up, my family would frequently travel to the gold-mining town where he was reared (“El Callao”) to stay as connected as possible with the ever-expanding family.
Trekking to my late grandmother’s house from the capital involves driving for several hours along gravely roads that snake through the rain forest-y countryside.
The silver lining in that winding voyage was the obligatory stop to evaluate the farmstead cheeses peddled by locals at roadside stands in the neighboring town of Guasipati.
My father would inevitably emerge with several kilos of milky queso de mano (literally “handmade cheese”), a block of membrillo (dulcet quince paste) and sheets of gritty cassava (insanely crunchy yucca bread).
He’d deliver the haul to my grandmother, Maria Rojas, who was more often than not finishing up a welcome-back feast of golden brown arepas, sweet niblet-laced cachapas (crepes made from freshly shucked corn) and whatever exotic meat — think: freakishly huge land turtles (morrocoy), burrowing rodents known as lapa and goats destined to be roasted over an open flame — that my Uncle Pedro Rojas had hunted down in anticipation of our arrival.
Our meals at home were much simpler, but still magical.
The foundation, of course, was the arepa. My father made it the same way he was taught growing up: Mix Harina P.A.N. precooked corn meal with warm water, add a splash of oil and a pinch of salt, stir together until dough begins to form, then shape into individual servings first by rolling into balls then flattening into pucks between the palms.
If my mother or younger brother had requested a doradita, my father would fold in a smidge of sugar to provide a caramelized finish. He also tended to twist those into pretzel-like shapes in order to avoid confusion.
Early on, he fried the arepas in vegetable oil, the same way my grandmother prepared them. When the George Formanization of cooking reached its apex, he switched to grilling them on a commercial press known as the Pronty Arepa.
I never much liked the grilled versions; they never got crunchy enough for my taste, and sometimes seemed rather dry.
Fillings ran the gamut depending on what we had available.
Swabbing the still steaming interior with butter was routine.
My father was always partial to stuffing his with deviled ham and whatever cheese might be lying around (Kraft singles and grated Parmesan figured prominently), whereas I usually sought to incorporate leftover pollo a la brasa or grilled chorizos into the equation.
Arepas are unequivocally best enjoyed while still hot. But carryovers were kept covered with a napkin and subsequently dispensed with as the day wore on.
For the longest time, the only place I could come across an arepa was to pull up a chair around the family table.
That was then.
NYC food sleuth Robert Sietsema earlier this summer wondered if Venezuelan street food might be the next must-try cuisine. Closer to home, The Washington Post last year deconstructed the signature South American sandwich for home cooks.
And they’re not the only ones who’ve fallen hard for the versatile treat.
Masa Appeal If the incredibly long lines that continue to form whenever the Arepa Zone truck comes to a halt are any indication, D.C. has definitely caught arepa fever.
The hospitality upstart, operated by native Venezuelans Ali Arellano and Gabriela Febres, has so captivated local diners that it took top honors in Mess Hall’s latest Launch Pad competition, earning it a temporary spot within grazing-friendly Union Market.
But competition is fierce these days.
The fine folks at Nellie’s (900 U St. NW ) have been feeding sports fans build-your-own arepas — escorted by sugary plantains and zesty pico de gallo, no less — for years now.
Vinoteca toque Lonnie Zoeller rolled out an all-Americas arepa layered with fork-tender beef, tangy cabbage slaw, mellowing jack cheese, creamy avocado and fresh cilantro to help introduce sibling establishment, The Royal (501 Florida Ave. NW).
Restaurateur Victor Albisu has even created an exclusively arepas bar menu at Del Campo (777 I St. NW) featuring slider-sized sandwiches laden with everything from caviar-topped lobster salad (good) to succulent blood sausage draped in garlicky Romesco (better) to a breathtaking pork belly-, egg- and nutty Manchego cheese-combo (best).
The gourmet flourishes are striking.
But my ideal arepa would have to be cobbled together Franken-style from three trusted providers.
The shell would come from Raul Claros, the chef and co-owner of La Caraquena (300 W. Broad St., Falls Church, Va.)
An arepa purist, Claros typically grills his saucer-sized corn cakes, but will, upon special request, fry up an order (or two) for those who favor a more substantive experience.
The extra effort is much appreciated, yielding shells that nearly shatter when chomped down upon.
Fillings-wise, it’s tough to beat Arepa Zone.
The carne mechada is intoxicating. The slow-cooked beef melts in the mouth, flooding the senses with a mélange of sautéed peppers, onions and tomatoes.
Chunky chicken salad takes wing with the help of buttery avocado and herb-studded aioli.
House-made gausaca, a condiment forged from hot peppers and vinegar, spices up anything. Shredded cheddar cools most things off.
Café Azul (4423 Longfellow St., Hyattsville, Md.), though, dishes out my preferred dairy fix.
Co-owners Mickey Torrealba and Monica Serrano assumed control of the deli/market from her brother-in-law a few years back. Since then, Serrano said, Caracas-born Torrealba has concentrated on introducing patrons to the Venezuelan dining experience — a transition that began with arepas and has subsequently progressed to include cachapas, hallacas (tamale-like holiday fare) and tequenos (fried cheese logs).
His commitment to authenticity led Torrealba to import Venezuelan-style cheeses from Miami — including queso de mano and queso Guayanes (like mozzarella, but saltier) — granting him the opportunity to recreate as faithfully as possible the true tastes of home.
The queso de mano is spot on. The aqueous cheese (it weeps milk when pinched) perfectly blankets any corresponding proteins when melted, oozing between clumps of shredded beef or pulled chicken with ease. The queso Guayanes adds a bit more bite, injecting saline into the mix; the squishy godsend released buttery runoff when pressed against the piping hot dough.
Things are going so well, in fact, that Serrano said an official rebranding is already underway.
“We are in the process of changing our name from Café Azul to Caracas de Ayer,” she said, noting that a celebration is scheduled for January.
My father would be delighted by the explosion of arepa purveyors fanning out across the area.
I dare say he’d be in heaven.
Roll Call dining guru Warren Rojas will stop at nothing to track down your regional specialty/state dish/hometown favorite. Put him on the case by nominating your most sorely missed meals to email@example.com. Related: Catching Up With the Globe-Trotting Pasty Digging Into the Kentucky Hot Brown Nebraskans Know There’s No Substitute for Runza See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.