Venezuelan Food (Cachapas -- Where Have You Been All My Life?)
- Dave Feldman
Based on a suggestion by Michael on this board, a friend and I went to the Venezuelan restaurant between 9th and 10th on First Ave. As Michael warned, it was highly inconsistent. The ceviche (shrimp only) was the worst I can ever remember; the cauliflower and mango salad uninspired. My friend's arroz con pollo was relatively uninspired although, come to think of it, she scarfed the huge portion down.
But the absolute standout was the cachapa con queso, a sweet pancake with a commanding corn flavor. Definitely worth eating here if only for this dish. A few questions:
1. Is this dish specifically Venezuelan?
2. What is it sweetened with?
3. Any other places that serve them?
The cheese on top of the cachapas ranged from refrigerator cold to warm. This kind of inattention to detail is typical of the restaurant, and yet I found the place endearing, with caring and helpful but slow service.
at flor's they make it with wrong cauliflower (blanched or parboiled), chopped mango, ground/grated carrot, and abundant chopped cilantro. It has a slightly sweet vinagrette on top, but not so strong a taste on the cauliflower that it seems to have been marinated.
I really like it. Flor's is indeed hit or miss - but I think this salad is wonderful... And the fish soup is quite good too.
They also make a really excellent tres dulches leche.
Avoid at all costs the steak. I thought at least we'd get a noble chuck steak, but it has been nothing but a mass of gristle on two occasions.
I've been meaning to write about the cachapas con queso, which I too discovered only recently. What a wonderful contrast between the salty cheese and the sweet corn pancake.
For what it's worth, I was in Venezuela a few years ago, for a couple of weeks, and encountered nothing like this dish. We did eat a lot of arepas there, some con queso.
Sorry I can offer no enlightenment on the cachapas.
As far as this restaurant goes, I can recommend the fruit juices (I had guanabana, my husband, guava), which were fresh and lively tasting (unlike some of the food).
re: Sharon A
I just wanna say that i am a young venezuelan and i have family in venezuela and i visit there every year from america. Being from venezuelan culture i too truly agree that out of all the food, cachapas is yet the number one and best food of all... don't get me wrong, i love my food from there, everything.., but i have to say that cachapas is the number one, and i miss it so much everyti me i come to america because the way i cook it here, doesnt taste the same as it is cookeed in venezuela.. However, i am glad that you enjoyed the cachapas. Everytime someone comes to venezuela from a different country, the first thing that comes to their mind is eating cachapas!!! :) (Best dish EVER!)
Dave--sorry for my delayed response (am on vacation in SF...eating VERY VERY well).
Cachapas are indeed heavenly. As I said, I'm not a huge fan of Flor's Kitchen (the place you went to), though there's not much else to recommend for Venezuelan food. Maturin was THE place, but they're closed (the chef still serves illegally in her basement, but I can't really post that info). Another choice is El buen Gusto (42-18 Greenpoint ave, Queens), but the people there--nice as they are--don't cook real well.
On the other hand, Columbians make chachapas, too. The Arepa Lady (see link below) makes the best version I've ever had. Everything she makes is the best version I've ever had.
Oh, to answer your question: they're only made in Venezuela and Columbia, they're sweet from fresh corn (a real pain to make), though most people spike with some sugar. And they're the classic example of a dish that's either great or terrible, depending on whether they're grilled to order or not. Also the quality of the cheese is important.
re: Jim Leff
Thanks, Jim and Sharon,
It is great fun when you find a dish and a cuisine that you haven't had before. I agree with you that the food at Flor's Kitchen is hit and miss (the ceviche is the worst I've ever had) and maybe there are much better cachapas out there. But it was definitely fresh and delicious.
It sure tasted like there was a small amount of liquid that wasn't accountable just by drippings from the cheese. My guess is that some type of syrup was added.
Corn is a very good thing. Just thought I'd state that!
One of my New Year's resolutions is to make a visit to the arepa lady. Soon.
I remember a post about Flor's Kitchen and this exact dish last November. It seemed like Jim and a few others weren't very high on this place back then. I guess things change pretty quickly these days.
As someone married to a Venezuelan, let me give readers some recommendations for eating at Flor's:
pabellon -- the National Dish if there is one. Delicious shredded meat ("carne mechada"), kinda like ropa vieja for folks more familiar with Cuban food. Gotta love the sweet baked plantains, too!
[note: you will find two major preparations of plantains in Venezuela -- maduros, which are ripe plantains baked until sweet, and tostones, which are green plantains, fried. Victor's also has a phenomenal "fufu" which is sweet and mashed...]
asado -- not sure what cut of beef is used here, but usually marinated for a long time in a dark sauce using ketchup and malta. My mother-in-law does better, but this is pretty good. Very typical.
arepas -- they are done pretty well here. try with carne mechada (see pabellon above), queso blanco (traditional white cheese, available at Citarella's on the east side BTW), or for the *real* experience, order one of each and eat your arepa with carne mechada *and* queso blanco. This is my breakfast every day when I go south. You may also be interested in the "reina pepiada", which is avocado and chicken. Yum!
arepitas con nata -- my favorite starter! they make mini-arepas, lightly fry them, and serve them with an interesting cheese the consistency of sour cream. Trust me. Amazing!
I can't recommend the empanadas over Ruben's, but they're still good.
Finally, in this cold weather everyone should try the Chupe soup, a rich chicken-stock-based soup with queso blanco and other unhealthy things. Very traditional for the morning after big parties.
The whole menu is online at "www.florskitchen.com"
And for people that find Venezuelan food intriguing, Taperia Madrid @ 76th/2nd Ave has Venezuelan brunches most Sundays prepared by the chef of the recently-closed Orinoco that was a true standout!