Avila Arepa: Like walking into your mother’s kitchen

by Elisabeth Hill

At two pm on a Sunday, Avila Arepa on Whyte Ave remains lively, with several handmade wooden tables populated by customers. Latin pop music and colourful décor paying homage to the owners’ hometown of Caracas, Venezuela add to the energy. Luckily for me, owners Rolando and Samantha are friendly and excited to talk about their restaurant and Venezuelan food and culture – even during a busy weekend afternoon.

Along with a comfortable and fun atmosphere, Avila Arepa is introducing something new to Edmonton’s food scene: the Venezuelan arepa. Rolando and Samantha Sandrea decided to open a restaurant after Rolando, whose background is in chemical engineering, was laid off for the second time in three years. With Rolando facing another difficult job hunt, the couple decided to turn hard luck into opportunity. They had both long dreamed of running their own business and opening a restaurant especially appealed to Rolando’s passion for cooking. They reasoned that opening a restaurant would be a risk, but that it was better to take a risk on something they were passionate about than to continue to pursue a life that wasn’t satisfying. Once the decision was made, Samantha worked to support their family while Rolando committed himself fulltime to what would become Avila Arepa.

Curiously, the space now occupied by Avila Arepa was previously a clothing store. With no kitchen, the Sandreas quite literally built their restaurant from scratch – even the tables. The restaurant’s interior, though as lively as one would expect from a Latin American restaurant – is particularly meaningful to the owners and many of their Venezuelan customers. The walls are decorated with photographs of Caracas and feature Venezuelan made merchandise that the Sandreas sell to support small businesses back home. Even a clock on one of the restaurant’s walls is perpetually set to Venezuelan time. That said, the most striking feature is the pattern of black, green, orange and purple triangles running across the floor and up the walls at the entrance. This entrance way is inspired by the art of Carlos Cruz-Diez, a famous Venezuelan artist who has become a symbol to Venezuelans living abroad.

Avila Arepa’s decor includes photos of the Sandrea’s hometown of Caracas.

Considering the setting,  the arepa, a corn-meal flatbread stuffed with various fillings, seems a natural choice.  In Venezuela, they are ubiquitous – eaten for any meal and by all people. They are made in every home but arepa restaurants in Venezuela are always busy, and some operate 24/7. When asked about the place of the arepa in Venezuelan cuisine, Rolando answered simply that “It is our bread”. Samantha expanded upon his explanation, saying that Venezuela is an extremely multicultural country with food reflecting  Spanish, Portuguese and Italian influences, but that the indigenous arepa has not only survived colonization and waves of immigration – it continues to transcend culture and class. Rolando and Samantha wanted to run a restaurant that served unpretentious, home cooked food that anyone can enjoy. The arepa fits the bill, in addition to being a symbol of their beloved country.

Like many Edmontonians, I was unfamiliar with Venezuelan food and didn’t know what to expect. A common misconception is that Venezuelan food will be spicy, because it is Latin American. Rolando emphasizes that Venezuelan cuisine is more flavourful than Mexican and other spicy cuisines. You don’t need to add hot sauces, pepper and strong spices because the flavours stand alone. I asked if he could define Venezuelan food in three ingredients, and received an immediate answer, “Cilantro!” Then cheese and plantain.[1] In Canada, he uses feta a lot because it is the closest to the cheeses used in Venezuela. Sourcing ingredients that capture the right flavours can be a challenge. The avocados here, for one thing, are very different, but the cheese seems to be a particular sticking point. To achieve the right quality, Rolando makes Avila Arepa’s cheese in house, from scratch. “The real way”, he says.

The arepa menu is divided into “Classics”, which are the traditional combinations of fillings, and “Signatures”, which are the new varieties developed for the Avila Arepa menu. The names of the Classics are universal – if you order a “Rumbera”, which means “party girl”, in Venezuela you will get the same sandwich as when you order here – oven roasted pork and cheddar cheese. The chicken and cheddar filled “Catira” means blonde, the “Domino” is named for its black bean and feta filling. Creamy avocado and chicken salad was the first Miss Universe’s favourite arepa and is named “Reina Pepeada”, the “Queen”, for her. The Signatures have more personal names, being named for places in Caracas such as Rolando and Samantha’s old neighbourhoods. Both Rolando and Samantha recommend that first timers start with a Classic to start with the most authentic experience. Rolando also recommends trying some of the “Sidekicks” to get a taste of other Venezuelan foods.

I tried the Pabélon, a Classic recommended by Rolando. Filled with pulled beef, black beans, feta cheese, and fried plantain.  For me, the plantain was the novel highlight – its mellow sweetness complemented the sharp feta and rich meat and beans. I was struck by the beautifully balanced flavours – each ingredient stands alone, but complements the others. The arepa was smaller than I expected, but generously stuffed and filling – and surprisingly heavy when I picked it up! One sandwich, which comes with a coleslaw-like side salad, was perfect for my mid-afternoon appetite, but I can certainly imagine eating more than one over the course of a meal!

 

The Pabelon arepa, featuring pulled beef, black beans, feta, and fried plantain.

Opening Avila Arepa has involved a learning curve – both for the Sandreas as first-time restaurant owners, and for the many customers encountering a new kind of food with little idea of what to expect. The response, however, has been exceptional.Since opening day, the business’ growth has been exponential in a totally unexpected way. They had planned their venture carefully but modestly, expecting slower growth. , Rolando pointed out a kitchen fridge the size of my own, visible through the entrance to the kitchen. That is the fridge they had originally planned to use. The restaurant opened on Canada Day long weekend, which they expected would be manageable due to many people being out of town. Instead, they had line ups out the door. Within two weeks they had to increase their staff from themselves and two employees to ten employees. There have been growing pains, and they have had to listen to customers and reviews and adapt and grow, but they say “people have been forgiving” as they’ve worked to catch up and their continuing popularity seems to be a testament to their ability to adapt and grow.

Rolando attributes most of their success first to their fresh food. Everything is made from scratch and nothing comes “from a box.” As a former chemical engineer, Rolando treats his kitchen as a personal lab; where he can both spend long hours working on new arepa combinations that replicate familiar flavors and have fun with the process . Rolando also credits Samantha’s management of the restaurant’s social media, which features realistic and appetizing photos of their dishes. It helps that the food is affordable (the arepas range in price from $8 – $12) and has a wide appeal. Students and families appreciate an affordable and varied menu, and the food is unpretentious yet appeals to foodies who value new experiences and quality ingredients. They have also had positive responses from vegans, vegetarians, and people with celiac disease or gluten-free diets. They did not intentionally seek to attract those demographics, the corn-based arepa is simply naturally gluten-free and easily adapted to vegetarian and vegan diets.

More than the growth of the business, it seems to be the personal responses of the customers which are a point of pride for Rolando and Samantha. Their desire to share their culture is evident in how they talk about their customers and the restaurant. On the one hand there are stories of the people who suddenly feel “at home” when they enter the restaurant. One man had lived in Canada for twenty-five years without visiting home, and the Carlos Cruz-Diez inspired entrance brought him right back to the international airport from which he left. Another man who came with his family for his 65th birthday, who spoke no Spanish, surprised them by telling them that he was Venezuelan. He had been born there but had not been back since he was a child. For more recent arrivals from Venezuela, the restaurant is a bittersweet reminder of the fact that while arepas are growing in popularity around the world, they are dying back home, where the increasingly hostile political situation and lack of basic resources has forced people like the Sandreas to leave. For them, Avila Arepa is a reminder of what Venezuela once was, like coming back to mom’s.

Avila Arepa’s Carlos Cruz-Diez inspired entrance.

On the other hand, there is the satisfaction of seeing new customers who have never even heard of an arepa come back repeatedly. Rolando tells of a teenage girl who after becoming a regular customer, asked for arepas for her fourteenth birthday to share her new favourite food with her friends. Samantha and Rolando’s daughter sometimes tells them that they’re  “making history” and the family jokes that when the kids are grown up they will hear about how their family introduced the arepa and Venezuelan food to the city.

Knowing the Sandreas, the accolades would be well deserved.  Avila Arepa offers tasty, good-for-you food, a friendly and comfortable atmosphere, and new culinary experiences at an affordable rate. Rolando and Samantha are constantly working to expand the already generous and varied menu, to make new specials and perhaps eventually add natural juices. They hope one day to open new locations in Edmonton or even other cities. Personally, I can’t wait to try another Classic arepa – I’m thinking the “Reina Pepeada” partly because of the story behind the name – or one of the Signatures.

[1] For the cilantro-haters out there, do not be put off. My arepa did not appear to have a trace of cilantro!

Photography by Elisabeth Hill

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