- Alex Springer
In my travels to survey Utah's increasingly diverse food scene, it's safe to say that I've gone pretty far down the rabbit hole of Central American sandwich culture. Even so, I'm delighted by the fact that I never cease to be surprised and fascinated by what I find. As soon as I think I have some semblance of understanding about the ways in which the lomito, pupusa, empanada and torta converge, I try an arepa from RicArepa Xpress (4616 S. 4000 West, Ste. D, 801-966-9393) and conclude that I truly know nothing. Luckily, such realizations do little to deter me on my path to sandwich enlightenment. After trying nearly half of the arepa menu at this bright little West Valley restaurant, however, I think I'm going to be smitten with these colossal, overstuffed Venezuelan staples for the foreseeable future.
In Venezuela and Colombia, the arepa—a flattened cornmeal cake that's been griddle-grilled to perfection—is a culinary staple. While the two countries have built their nationally renowned dishes on the same foundation, Venezuelan arepas, or arepas rellenas, are sliced in half and stuffed with meat, beans and cheese, while Colombian arepas are typically served naked, stuffed with melted cheese or topped with grilled meat and veggies. Preparation methods in both countries overlap, but hitting up a Venezuelan arepa joint stateside means facing down a menu of sandwich hybrids that combine elements of pupusas, tamales and tacos.
There's much to be said about RicArepa's selection of fillings. But before we go there, we absolutely must talk about the arepa itself. On paper, I know that this is simply cornmeal and water that has been patted into something that resembles a slightly skinny English muffin before it's grilled on both sides. Somewhere along the way, however, the arepa transcends the simplicity of its ingredients to become a textural wonderland. The exterior firms up into a pleasantly crisp crust while the inside remains chewy and soft. Once it's stuffed with fillings like shredded beef, black beans, fried plantains and cheese like the arepa pabellón ($8.95), the flavors and textures combine in all the best ways.
The pabellon is one of RicArepa's most popular menu items, and it makes sense. In addition to the textural collision of crunchy exteriors that yield to warm, gooey centers, the understated sweetness of the plantains sings under all that salt. It's a dish that remains in a constant state of flux as you eat it. When it arrives, the shredded cheese spilling forth from the arepa's mouth is cold and sharp. As you work your way through, the heat of the shredded beef and beans melts the cheese down, letting it merge with the soft cornmeal of the interior. By the time you're holding your last bite, you've got this perfect little punctuation mark of melted cheese and crispy cornmeal that has been supercharged with whatever meat drippings you're not licking off of your fingers.
The pabellón was the most balanced of the group, but I didn't try anything that wasn't delicious—and enormous. The arepa pernil ($7.95) combines shredded pork and a Venezuelan potato salad, which creates a starchy counterpoint to the fattiness of the pork and cheese. The arepa Mexicana ($9.95) throws fajita-style grilled meat and veggies into the mix, and the arepa reina pepiada ($8.95) mixes shredded chicken with mayo and avocado for a cool, creamy variation.
Those who can't decide on which arepa best suits their mood will want to check out the goliath arepa especial ($10.95). This monster looks like it was created on a dare, as if its inventors were curious to see how much filling could be stuffed into the arepa's pocket. The especial contains huge scoops of shredded beef, chicken, cheese and potato salad, along with some shrimp for good measure. Abandon all hope of eating this entry without the aid of a fork—once the arepa soaks up all that love, its structural integrity tends to relax and jettison its cargo.
Although I believe arepas should be consumed whenever the opportunity presents itself, I also encourage any fans of this sandwich dynamo to do so with reverence to Venezuela's current political climate. Arepas have been a cultural necessity to the people of Venezuela for hundreds of years, and the country's oppressive political regime has created a massive food shortage, putting the arepa in jeopardy of extinction at home. Every time we enjoy an arepa made by Venezuelan immigrants, we're not only supporting a group of people who were lucky enough to start a new life for themselves, but we're keeping a bit of Venezuelan culture in our hearts at a time when they really need it.
Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, noon-6 p.m.