I’ll let you in on a secret truth that many people would fight me on: Sandwiches. Are. Not. That. Good.
Until I tried my first arepa—a Venezuelan corn flour pocket stuffed with savory deliciousness—I was perfectly satisfied with the bread-enveloped contraptions, no matter how soggy or messy they got. But an arepa—fried crisp on the outside, cushiony soft on the inside—puts bread-based pocket foods to shame. To shame, I tell you!
I first fell in hunger-panged lust with these perfectly engineered handheld devices on the Lower East Side, at an arepa joint crawling with hipsters who shall remain nameless. And listen, they were totally fine. At that point, I didn’t know any better. That particular boîte is decked out in deeply saturated hues, with burnished wood tabletops and decent service. It probably even has five stars on Yelp. Keep ’em.
For the most toothsome arepas in New York City, you’ve got to hop on the N or W train and beeline to Astoria, Queens, a neighborhood that’s renowned for its Greek food but is, in reality, a treasure trove of edible delights from around the globe. NPR touted Astoria as “an urban United Nations,” and I should know. It’s where I lived quite happily—if not skinnily—for five years, gorging on freshly stuffed cannoli and melt-on-the-tongue halva and, yes, Greek delicacies that quicken my pulse to think about.
Astoria is where the Arepas Cafe and Arepas Grill—two separate restaurants owned by Riccardo Romero, the former “truffle guy” to star chefs like Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten et al—beckon. Oh, and beckon they do. After a 10-year stint in New York City, I fled to the mountains of Colorado two years ago, but I still dream about the edible divinities Arepas Cafe churns out. (The arepas I’ve had here give me the sads, honestly, though I’ve yet to try an authentic restaurant for them—only painfully hip iterations that fall apart into a flavorless mess in a split second.) Now whenever I fly back to New York City for a visit, Arepas Cafe is the first place I go no matter what.
You’re not going for the interior design—you’re at Arepas Cafe to eat, and eat well.
Aesthetically, these spots are nothing special; holes-in-the-wall where futbol games are always buzzing on the flat-screens. But you’re not going for the interior design (if you wanted that, just get arepas at that unnamed hipster joint in the city). You’re there to eat, and eat well.
My usual order is simple: one Guayanesa Tropical arepa (stuffed with fried sweet plantains and mozzarella-esque white cheese) and one Veggia arepa (abundant with black beans, perfectly fresh slices of avocado, and fried sweet plantains). I drizzle each bite with the creamy cilantro and spicy-sweet pepper dressings, both of which make mayonnaise seem about as delicious as liquefied cardboard.
You can opt to stuff your own arepa with practically anything you’re hankering for, from slow-cooked shredded beef to truffle butter with tuna. The menu is stocked with plenty of other treats—tequenos (deep fried cheese sticks), chicha (a Christmasy chilled rice and condensed milk beverage dusted with cinnamon), and tres leches (a milk-soaked sponge cake)—and you can’t go wrong with any of them. But it’s the arepas that are, ahem, the best thing since sliced bread. And don’t take my word for it: Go order a few and report back. Or better yet? Send me some.
Kathryn O’Shea-Evans is a Colorado-based writer for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. Follow her on Instagram @kathrynosheaevans. For WSWD, she previously wrote about the bathroom at the Frick Collection, Tender Buttons, and Albertine Bookstore.