Old Friends & Arepas
For the past two weekends I have had the true pleasure of spending time with people I’ve known for well over twenty years. Being in the presence of someone who more or less knows your entire history can be a strange and comforting thing, especially for those of us who have landed in towns far from where we grew up. Thankfully, NYC is a place most folks don’t need a ton of convincing to come visit and so while I do get mighty homesick from time to time, it’s never too long before I have a familiar face flying in to stay with my wife and I for the weekend.It can’t come as much of a surprise to find out that one of my most favorite things to do with folks when they inevitably roll through town is to show them new and exciting things to eat. Anytime I eat something new and impossibly delicious, my
When my wife and I moved to Bushwick in Brooklyn last year, one of the first restaurants we tried was this place called Guacuco, a small Venezuelan joint serving up something amazing that I had never tried before: arepas. The second that I sat down and gobbled up my first arepa, I had a list of people I couldn’t wait to tell about them. When my friends were in town this past weekend, the first meal we had together was to head out and get some arepas so that they could try them for themselves. Lo and behold, they were a hit! To toast the great time we had and to give a shout out to the great food that Guacuco puts out every night, I’ve dedicated this week’s recipe and blog post in honor of my new-found love of arepas and the sheer appreciation I hold for having a place like Guacuco be only a short walk through the park from me. Continue reading for a review I’ve written about Guacuco or scroll to the bottom to get your hands on a delicious Oxtail Arepa with Guasacaca Sauce recipe! I just know that you, too, will love them as much as we do!
The Guacuco Experience: My Neighborhood Arepa Joint
Only a block away from Maria Hernandez Park off of Irving Avenue in Bushwick, the Venezuelan arepera, Guacuco, echoes the lively communal energy that emanates from the park just down the street. From the kitchen literally being a part of the dining room to the high ceilings and open layout of the bar and tables, the vibe inside Guacuco immediately says, “Come as you are–grab a drink and enjoy some home cooking from the Venezuelan family you never had.” Truly a family affair, the owner, Leonardo Molina, has entrusted the menu to the best chef he knows: his mother Carmen. And the personal touch doesn’t stop there, even the name of the restaurant is an homage to Leonardo’s upbringing. The restaurant’s namesake, Playa Guacuco, is a beach on the eastern coast of Isla de Margarita in Venezuela and is where this mother and son duo called home many years ago.
The menu and pricing are designed in such a way that you are encouraged, nay compelled, to explore a few different items on the menu upon each visit. Making the decision to share several items with a friend or the entire table is one of the better calls you can make. Much of the food is served in red plastic baskets and is intended to be eaten with your hands, making it all the easier to share and pass dishes to each other. Each table is equipped with three squeeze bottles, all filled with unique and delicious sauces that seamlessly pair with and elevate each item on the menu in their own way. In the first bottle there is a green pepper sauce that tastes deeply of fresh peppers and has an accompanying kick that will rile the culinary masochist that lives inside you. The next bottle is filled with a bright green and white sauce that is as herbaceous as it is creamy. The bright flavor of cilantro fades into a tangy finish, making it a perfect fit for the restaurant’s richer dishes. Behind door number three is what I refer to as “Venezuelan Secret Sauce.” It’s taste and color are reminiscent of the Big Mac “don’t-call-it-thousand-island” Secret Sauce, but obviously of much higher quality in both flavor and ingredient. A hot n’ crispy beef empanada and this tomato n’ mayonnaise based sauce let us know that ketchup and cheeseburgers aren’t the only way that those flavors can get down. Although admittedly a condiments-addict, I come here for these sauces as much as anything else. They are that good.A meal at Guacuco is best started with a trio of items: two appetizers and a drink. In addition to choosing something from the imported beers list (which admittedly is a bit disappointing) or sampling their house-made sangria, I prefer to start each meal with a Cocada. A thick and frothy drink, similar to but lighter in consistency than a milk shake, Cocadas are blended coconut smoothies that offer a sweet and cooling balance to the rich and spicy food. Served in a Mason jar with a cherry on top, this delicious drink has the staying power to last all dinner long. For the table, start with an order of Tequenos and Tostones. Consider Tequenos as the mozzarella sticks of Venezuela. A soft white cheese is wrapped in strip of doughy tortilla and deep fried until golden brown. Each order only comes with seven, so be prepared to remember how to share or order accordingly. When these hit the table, if only for a moment, you will revert to a more primal version of yourself. Be forewarned. A good balance and accompaniment to the fried cheese is a plate of crispy plantains called Tostones. Both sweet and savory, Tostones offer tons of flavor and crunch in addition to their true calling: being a vehicle for cheese and sauces. Sprinkled with aged cheeses and drizzled with two different kinds of sauce, Tostones are the perfect appetizer to wake up your stomach and prepare your tongue for the flavors yet to come.
For the main event, I typically like to order an arepa and an empanada, but there is absolutely no wrong way to go about approaching their menu. If something catches your attention, follow your gut and you will not be disappointed. For me, though, there is nothing better than the combination of a Pernil Arepa and a Carne Mechada Empanada. Across the board, the arepas themselves are top notch here. A dense and insanely crispy corncake that’s fried on a griddle and finished in the oven, an arepa is a magical creation, which more or less serves the same purpose as a pita in the context of a falafel sandwich, yet is more pronounced and important. The Pernil Arepa is stuffed with juicy slow roasted and marinated pork shoulder and topped with cheddar cheese. Served with nothing but a sheet of wax paper and a basket, you are left alone with only your thoughts and a trio of sauces. I will never forget the first time I sank my teeth into one of these. I cannot recommend enough that you go there and make a memory of your very own.
Most of the time, your arepa will arrive sooner than your empanada, which sets up a nice, albeit unintentional, “multi-course” feel to your experience. As you are savoring the last few bites of pork and corncake, a crackling hot, fresh-from-the-frier Carne Mechada Empanada hits the table in front of you before you can even begin to consider mourning the recent departure of the arepa. Swept up in this deep fried distraction, you crack into the shell with a pop from your knife. A wisp of steam escapes from golden brown dough and your mind goes blank. It isn’t until the intense burning inside your mouth becomes severe that you snap to and immediately realize that it is way too freaking hot to eat. After drizzling it generously with Guacuco-brand Big Mac sauce and letting it cool, you pick up your fork and knife and began dismantling the crispy pocket of tender shredded beef like the trained professional you are. And what a delight it is.
I have never had enough room left to really consider the dessert menu, but I can only assume that there is a gem in there too. Overall, the experience is one worth making a trip out to Bushwick for. You will leave having had an authentic home cooked meal that you will crave again and again, and remember for a long time.