I pace back and forth from the skinny wooden counter to the chalkboard outside — unconfident in my arepa choosing capabilities. Aura Jimenez is perpetually patient despite me blocking up the traffic of her packed restaurant. A waiter carrying plates of tequeños, black bean soup, pork chops and generously stuffed arepas does his best to inch past me. Jimenez is the matriarch of Guaica, a tiny Venezuelan eatery hidden past a broken escalator and a long corridor in the basement of a three story mall dominated by computer shops. It is just barely out of ear shot of the peddlers that shout “cambio!” up above.
I audibly debate the pros and cons of the nearly two dozen listed options. “Braised pork leg and avocado sounds great but is it as juicy as the asado negro and can I put fried plantains on everything?” We finally come to a decision, a reina pepiada, the traditional shredded chicken and avocado filling. She is about to pass the ticket along to the kitchen when a plate of shredded beef, black beans, avocado and fried plantains floats by like a dream. “Hold up,” I proclaim, “I want that.”
For years, Jimenez and her husband Javier León, who mans the kitchen, were amongst a small group of cooks offering traditional Venezuelan dishes. The pair have a natural warmth that makes you immediately feel welcome. They arrived from Mérida to Buenos Aires more than a decade ago, “With a suitcase, some debt and a lot of dreams,” starts León. Mérida is a small mountain region on the Southwest edge of Venezuela. It is, according to León, one of the country’s most diverse food regions in part because of its unique Andean culture and a climate that produces much of the nation’s agriculture.
The pair began as a closed door and catering service in Palermo before setting up their brick-and-mortar on the ground floor of the famous Galería Jardín three years ago. “We were a complete anomaly. Not just in Microcentro where there wasn’t a lot of variety but imagine walking through this mall and finding a little arepa stand in the middle of a bunch of computer shops.”
The pabellón arrives on a simple dish that fits perfectly with the homeyness of its contents. Sprinkles of cumin and chile powder waft through the air and to your nose before you can even take in the rest of the dish. The tender shreds of braised beef pop with the savory juices of a rich broth. Bites are complimented by fatty avocado, the sweet char of gooey fried plantains and light strings of white cheese. Squirts of a citrusy cream sauce makes a great pair for the earthy black beans. A chunky hot sauce made of bright yellow aji limon packs a heat that settles on the tip of the tongue and only begins to graze to the back of the throat when paired with the bits of carne.
“Arepas come from the indigenous tribes. It is our interpretation of corn which you in every cuisine across South America. In Mexico, they turned it into tortillas [sic] in Argentina you see it in humita. We made arepas and it’s what we eat everyday,” explains León, “Guaica comes from Guaicaipuro, an indigenous chief that fought off Spanish influence and who was able to keep Venezuela free of a Viceroyalty. We wanted to pay respect to that strength and the indigenous influence that you see in typical Venezuelan dishes.”
Corn shows up across the menu. Empanadas are made with a corn dough before being stuffed and deep fried. The filling is made with chicken that is lightly fried in achiote-infused oil before being seasoned with sweet pepper and a touch of curry and cooked until it can be served pisillo, or shredded. The dough is fried to a golden brown and has a beautiful flakey crunch that gives way to succulent chicken. Long cylinders of soft cheese are wrapped in broad ribbons of the same dough and are also thrown into the deep fryer until the masa begins to bubble without sacrificing the chewy texture of the mozzarella. Both appetizers should be doused in sauce — I liked the combination of the hot sauce tempered by the citrus of a thin white cream.
Soups change daily and can be ordered as a small accompaniment or a large main. A warm black bean soup had a wonderful fattiness from the rings of fat that rose up from the chicken broth. Although I found the garlic sauce too rich with the other dishes, in the soup it heightened the comforting buttery flavors. Arepas can be prepared any way you want with options for vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters, alike. A vegan option stuffed with fried plantains, beans and avocado was just as satisfying as the asado negro, which came with generous strips of beef braised in a sweet panela and red wine marinade. Most guests ask for the asado negro to come stuffed with cheese but Aura insists the typical preparation is with thin slices of tomatoes. The white corn arepas are toasted to a nice crunchy texture that stands as a nice contrast to the lush fillings.
To drink, I preferred the tangy sweetness of a flor de jamaica soda over the simple (but equally tasty) iced tea. A house made beer is prepared with hibiscus and flor de jamaica as well and recently took home a gold medal at the South Beer Cup for Spice Beer category. A well-stocked bar means that guests can have an early drink and small dish before the 7pm closing time.
It would take nearly a month to chow through every item on the menu. It’s a welcome challenge.
Florida 537, basement floor #315, Microcentro
Monday through Friday noon to 7:00pm
Saturday noon to 4:00pm