- Alex Springer
Getting shitfaced on a Friday night often concludes among the tables and counters of late-night pizza joints and 24-hour diners. Our bodies tend to crave sustenance that is greasy, melty or otherwise ridiculously carb-heavy in situations like these, and I'd bet those of us who've been in that situation downtown have a favorite post-debauchery food haunt. I'm also willing to bet that, beloved as these haunts are to their regulars, there are precious few that will know exactly what to make you when you stumble in at 2 a.m. and yell fuck it! when they ask for your order. That's where Arempa's (350 S. State, 385-301-8905) is starting to shine.
Though I have primarily enjoyed the Venezuelan wonder-sandwich known as the arepa at a reasonable hour, I can definitely understand its late-night appeal. Nothing quite clears out the mental haze of booze and thrumming dance music like a kettlebell-sized arepa overstuffed with everything that is pure in this unforgiving world, which is why night owls visiting Arempa's will want to take them up on the "Fuck It" ($14.99). It's on their secret late-night menu as a dish they created based on their experience serving up hot arepas to spent partygoers. They ask what you want, you say fuck it, so they jam two of their signature proteins into a grilled and sliced cornmeal cake with anything else they think will delay your hangover.
When I ordered this secret menu item, the chefs combined grilled chicken and carne asada with the works—slices of creamy avocado and fried plantains layered with shredded lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and melted cheese. It is a ridiculous mockery of sandwich engineering, but it keeps the arepa's secret weapon of balance prepped and ready to fire. With any arepa, you get a golden ratio of texture and flavor, but I was surprised that such balance remained within the confines of such a gargantuan serving of food. The saltiness of the protein hits first, but before it can completely overwhelm the palate, the avocado, mayo and plantain even things out with creaminess. There's a different level of crunch in every bite as the crispy edges of the cornmeal cake blend with the cool shredded lettuce and sliced tomato. Altogether, it's eye-opening enough to send you back into the night in search of the after party.
Just because Arempa's caters to the dark side of city dining doesn't mean it's not a completely respectable place to do lunch or dinner. The carne asada ($10.50) and pabellón ($10.50) arepas are my current favorites. The carne asada is a textbook example of simplicity done expertly—the meat is cooked perfectly and the cheese hits it just in time to melt into a gooey sidekick. I'm a sucker for plantains, so I often seek out the pabellón's mix of black beans, shredded beef, plantains and cheese. It offers a good blend of complexity for a lunchtime visit, and both arepas pair particularly well with a cold can of Frescolita, a popular Venezuelan strawberry soda that Arempa's always has on hand. Plantains also feature prominently on the vegan arepa ($8.50) which is a great option for plant-based eaters—they pull no punches with the flavors and textures here.
The wildcard of Arempa's menu is the reina pepiada ($9.50), which is stuffed with a cool avocado chicken salad. It's heavy on the avocado and mayo, making it ideal for lunch when the weather is sweltering. With the chicken salad becoming a creamy blend of softer textures and flavors, the reina pepiada is a bit of a blank canvas—I recommend hitting it with some hot sauce or adding a bit more salt to ramp up its profile.
There's no shame in only getting arepas when you visit Arempa's, but it can be fun to venture into other areas of the menu. The patacón ($10.50), for example, is a Venezuelan sandwich made from meat and fresh veggies stuffed between two flattened plantains. There's no way to attempt this endeavor without making a huge mess of yourself, but that should by no means deter you from experiencing this unconventional interpretation of a sandwich. You've also got the cachapa ($10), a kind of cornmeal pancake that gets folded over melted cheese and shredded meat and a variety of empanadas ($3.50-$5) that feature your choice of protein or a daily vegan option.
Any fan of Central America's all-in approach to sandwiches and other meat-stuffed carbs will find something to love at Arempa's, but the restaurant's presence here is much more than a place to get a well-made arepa. This is a place that has brought a little bit of Venezuela's culinary nightlife to our downtown burg, diversifying our ability to satisfy late-night cravings of all stripes. I will always have a deep love and admiration for midnight pizza runs and 4 a.m. garbage hash cravings, but there's something equally satisfying about seeing a basket bulging with an obscenely stuffed arepa coming your way in the wee hours of the morning.