A bottle of Valentina sits quietly amongst other hot sauces on a shelf off to the side of the room. Its orange top acts as a magnet that tunnels my gaze before I’ve taken in anything else around me. Paolo Rossi notices. “You should try out the house hot sauce, too,” he proclaims with an easy smile and a benevolent Venezuelan accent. He plants the familiar salsa and the plastic red squeeze bottle side-by-side. Elote, the famous Mexican corn on the cob and the name of this little Chacarita restaurant, is written across the hard plastic in rough strokes of permanent marker. “We make it with habaneros,” he adds sagely as if he already knew that was all I needed to hear.
Through the small window on the kitchen door I can see Carla Smith’s head bobbing back and forth as she prepares a pair of tacos for me — I’m the last patron to get in on the tail end of the lunch service. They are delivered on a flimsy aluminum tray, the delicate bright yellow tortillas rounding upwards like horseshoes. The masa is slightly puffy and pliable and resists the urge to split up the middle under the curve of my grip—they use nixtamal to prepare the dough—and are delicately stuffed with a plump battered shrimp and braised bondiola.
It takes just a single squirt to release the tangy floral aroma belonging to the habanero, a chile used widely across Mexico and the United States’ Southwest, and a smell I immediately recognize from years of frequenting a Michoacán carniceria and taco shop. The thin strands of pork shoulder poke out from either end of the tortilla and smell of a mixture of smoked paprika and cinnamon or possibly ginger—Smith later reveals that she braises the pork with cardamum. It’s topped with shredded cheese and a generous quarter of bright green avocado that tempers the heat of the habanero sauce. “I wanted to work somewhere where I could put aguacate on absolutely everything,” Smith explains — I didn’t need convincing. The pudgy piece of fried shrimp is battered in a mix that belonged to her grandmother and fried to form a thick shell that is soft like a bready corn batter but stout enough to avoid becoming soggy with reserves of oil and grease.
Smith emerges from the back to say hola — everyone at Elote had a neighborly presence — and I do my best to be modest with a ‘te felicito’ and extended hand rather than jump out of my chair to kiss her.
Although I had come to try the shrimp tacos, Elote opened last September with a menu that offers a broader Latin American flavors. Smith hails from Caracas and Rossi from Valencia, Venezuela and Jesús Cabrera, the third member of the team, from Xalapa, Mexico. This means that Venezuelan arepas, crunchy corn discs no thicker than a few pieces of paper and patacones, fragile sheets of fried plantain, share the menu with the aforementioned tacos. “We didn’t set out to make Mexican food or Venezuelan food,” insists Cabrera, “We wanted to explore the common threads across Latin America but obviously our roots come through.”
This would explain why the fillings—all of which can be stuffed into a tortilla, arepa or patacón of your choosing—stray from tradition without wandering too far from homey flavors. “The tortilla is just the means of eating something,” explains Cabrera, “My mother would put anything on a tortilla. After school we would brush a little sugar on it and eat it like that.” That sense of freedom has made Smith a natural fit. Trained as a pastry chef in Venezuela, her last job was in the kitchen of BASA, the low lit high end Retiro bar and restaurant. “I need to be able to experiment and not just follow recipes,” she explains, before waxing poetic about a chorizo ice cream she would like to design with Germán Sitz of Chori.
Everything, however, pulls back to the trio’s roots. Smith’s first cooking job was as a teenager in the Moroccan restaurant of a family friend which has left a permanent impression on her palate. Tahini is an ever present ingredient in her recipes and a vegetarian option includes a thick nutty hummus and eggplant chips. She recommends it atop a brittle patacón — here they call it a tostón as to not confuse diners with a local currency instituted during the 2001 crisis. The plantain is flattened into a thin round and deep-fried so that the fragile disc takes on the texture of a crisp potato chip. Streams of a refreshing chilled yogurt and cucumber sauce soak into the eggplant before collecting in the tiny crevices of the plantain.
Mammoth-sized arepas, Smith’s specialty, appear with uniform lines of black char extending from one end of the arepa to the other. What makes her arepas distinctly Venezuelan is the thinness of the dough — white corn masa is smashed into rounds and has a airy wafer-like texture. Assembled like a sandwich with two separate discs rather than the Colombian version, a thicker dough that is partially sliced and stuffed, the masa sits rigid and flat over a trio of juicy braised beef, creamy avocado sauce and cheese. While I didn’t care for the shredded faux cheddar on my taco, it slowly melted under the heat of the freshly grilled arepa into a melty mess reminiscent of a cheese steak sandwich. A thick chipotle sauce prepared with mango brought down the richness of the braised beef before a kick of chile de arbol kicked the spice back up.
A small selection of salads wouldn’t be my first choice (come on, there’s tacos) but are generous and fresh. Like the Caribe which came piled high with mixed greens, sautéed shrimp, avocado aioli and a mango sauce. Fresh lemonade offers a cool respite for a humid summer day and rotating beers from famed brewery DUST are on tap and make for a perfect pairing.
The paint is still wet at Elote with plans to continue to change and grow the menu — Smith has her eye on ceviche — but for now, at least, they are off to a great start.
Jorge Newbery 3791, Chacarita
Monday 12:30PM to 4:00PM
Tuesday to Thursday 12:30PM to 4:00PM and 6:00PM to midnight
12:30PM to 4:00PM and 6:00PM to 1:30AM
Saturday 6:00PM to 1:30AM
Sunday 6:00PM to 12:30AM
Price: $$ < AR $300 per person