At Arepa City, the house special isn’t on the menu. It isn’t even food. The house special is Daniel Farias, owner and chef, sitting down at your table to talk about his Mom’s cooking back in Venezuela.
He can do that because Arepa City is such a small place. It occupies the Second Street bay once used by the much-missed Skewers, where Javid Mohmand served up excellent soup and kebabs.
Farias has awesome soup too – a chicken and root vegetable broth spiced like Eastern Shore crab soup – but his main attractions are arepas and empanadas, small meat-and-veggie pies and sandwiches made from cornmeal. (Flavor aside, his marketing pitch is “Gluten-free!” Gluten–averse people, you know who you are.)
He moved here from Florida to work for Hershey Resorts, but Farias left his job as banquet manager when he realized the Harrisburg metro area had an Arepa Gap. That’s right: No arepas for you, Mr. Pa. Dutch guy. You gotta go to Philly or New York to address your Arepa Jones. Until now.
An arepa is a bun made from ground corn, water, sugar, vinegar and salt, unleavened yet not flat like a tortilla, and stuffed with pork, chicken, beef, eggs, tomatoes, avocado, salad, cheese, shrimp or fish. Arepa City serves them grilled or fried, and customers seem to prefer grilled.
The beef is flank steak, shredded and cooked with onions, peppers and tomatoes. Or it’s Cuban-style ground beef with green olives, peppers and onions. The pork is pernil, slow-roasted pork topped with avocado sauce. Or it’s pork shoulder with grilled cheese. See how this works? The food is not quite what you expect, and a little deeper in flavor. What looks like garlic mashed potatoes is actually garlic mashed cassava.
“I wanted to make my food as traditional, as authentic, as possible, the way you would taste it in my home,” Farias said. “That’s where I learned, from my Mom. I went to school but I did not graduate as a chef, so I cook from passion.”
We started with an arepa sampler appetizer:
— Cheese arepa, a grilled cheese with sweet plaintains, using mozzarella, cheddar or queso fresco, a mild, white farm cheese.
— Domino, black beans and queso fresco – voted Best in Show at our table.
— Picadillo, with ground beef in the Cuban style.
— Pulled Chicken Guisado, chicken slow-cooked in tomato juice.
— Reina Pepiada, a roast chicken and avocado salad.
— Chorizo Con Papas, Mexican chorizo and diced potatoes. Chorizo is a hot sausage, and this has a bit of heat to it.
— Carne Mechada, shredded flank steak, onions, peppers and tomatoes
— Miliciosa, roasted pork shoulder, grilled queso fresco and sliced avocado
These were hearty starters and got a good reception from our table of eight.
“I loved all the fillings,” Jo said, “especially this chicken and avocado mayo salad. And I thought the black beans were perfect, they were just spicy enough.”
To sauce this very large array of Venezuelan deliciousness, we got a set of squeeze bottles. Some were filled with mayo blends, some with guasacaca, an avocado sauce.
“Most of our sauces are based with mayo,” said Kenneth, our server. “We have garlic mayo, we got a spicy mayo.” But the most popular of the weekday sauces is guasacaca – possibly because it’s more fun to say than mayo. (Try it: gwa-sa-ca-ca. See? Makes you smile.)
Kenneth said that on the weekends, his regulars like their condiments a little more jacked-up.
“We got our Cry-Baby Sauce, and our Holy Crap Sauce that’s a little bit more spicy,” he said. “Our most popular over the weekend is our Son of a Gun,” which is the ultimate spicy.
Brianna loved the regular guasacaca (made with avocado and cilantro), Gloria and I grabbed the jalapeno version. If you want some heat but are not week end-sauce-ready, go for the jalapeno guasacaca. (Again, worth saying: ha-la-PAIN-ya gwa-sa-ca-ca! Love it.) Of course, carnivores like Mode Man pretty much ignored the sauces to focus on the key aspects.
“Meat,” he said. “Meat is good.”
And there’s a lot of it, a serious protein fiesta.
But the tostones and tequenos had their own pull. Tostones are twice-fried plantains that eat like potato chips. “I fry them and smash them and then fry them again,” Farias said. Well salted, they’re addictive.
Tequenos are like mozzarella sticks, but are made using queso fresco and corn dough. “I’m a huge fan of the cheesesticks,” Rick said. “They’re just a great different crispy version of a cheese stick.”
A polenta sampler came with a toppings of chicken, pork, flank steak and spicy cabbage on deep-fried polenta, which is a cornmeal mush with a smooth, creamy texture and a crisp exterior. Ummm-m-m.
Farias also served up frites of fried cassava. “They’re soft compared to French fries because I boil them before I fry them,” he said. They’re best with garlic mayo.
Cassava, a root veggie, shows up a lot at Arepa City. It’s a woody shrub native to South American that became an annual crop because of its edible root, which is starchy and tuberous like the potato. . (You may already have tasted dishes made from the flour of the root: tapioca.) The plant itself is also called yucca or manioc, and it is making an appearance in Pennsylvania groceries that have major produce sections.
As with so many Mode dining adventures, we had gorged on appetizers and had to negotiate the rest of the meal with the owner. What else should we have? What did he want us to taste?
Stuff that wasn’t on the menu, of which there was a lot. The chef wanted to share because, he said, his regular customers often challenge him to go off the menu. You don’t have to be regular, though. Just show up and sit down and start talking to him about what’s possible.
In the end, Farias brought out two flans. The first was like crème caramel, good but not exotic. The second one he described as an experiment, and a mistake. It was a custard that didn’t work until he froze it and cut in something that tasted like pound cake – if you topped pound cake with flan, tamarind and a balsamic reduction.
It was substantial and delicious. He didn’t know what to call it. He asked us.
It’s that kind of place.