Not long ago a Venezuelan bar and café appeared in Woodside’s Little Manila. Leapfrogging ethnic restaurants are no new thing for Roosevelt Avenue, but what made El Rincon Venezolano different—aside from the fact that there are virtually no Venezuelan restaurants in town—is that the place appeared to be owned by Filipinos. Emblazoned across the awning, “Krystals” identifies a local Philippine empire of groceries, bars, and cafés. Why would Filipinos foster a South American restaurant, I wondered as I pushed my way through a throng of revelers at the bar, including, I noted with curiosity, a bevy of drag queens.
Venezuelan cooking is less well-known than that of its neighbor Colombia, though it shares snacks like arepas—flat masa cakes that can be either sweet or savory. The arepa section of the menu deploys them like slices of white bread to make sandwiches ($3.50 each) stuffed with cheese, shredded beef, scrambled eggs, and salads heavy with mayo. Much better—and I didn’t find them till a Venezuelan friend pointed them out—are the arepitas ($2.75), miniature fried arepas with a fluffy white interior, brought to the table steaming and furnished with a tart dipping sauce something like thin sour cream. Also estimable are tequeños, little cones of puff pastry loaded with oozy white cheese. To enjoy them fully, ask for picante, and receive two jars of sauce—one green and milk-laced, like the Peruvian hot sauce served at the rotisserie chicken joints, the other yellow and considered super-hot by Venezuelan standards. We used up most of both jars without breaking a sweat.
While Latin cooking has led us to expect dishes soaked in sharp vinegar and heaped with garlic and chile peppers, the provender at El Rincon is distinctly tame, with spicing reminiscent of Midwestern food. Since the food is expertly prepared and fresh tasting, get over your prejudice that bland is bad and you’ll have a fine meal. Pasticho ($5) is an all-purpose lasagna that can be stuffed with a combo of veggies, meat, and poultry, depending on the cook’s whim, while pabellon criollo ($7) is a dead ringer for Cuban ropa vieja, daubed with dark gravy and milder than its prototype. My favorite entrée is carne asado, a rolled pot roast served in thick slices coated with the merest patina of oil, garlic, and salt, tendered with sweet plantains and white rice—real rib-sticking fare. In the same vein is parrilla con yuca, a heap of nicely grilled skirt-steak fragments sided with planks of fried manioc, as fluffy inside as the arepitas.
While fellow diners were excited by pan de jamon, a bread rollmop featuring green olives and prosciutto, I wasn’t. It appears as an appetizer, and, along with a tamale and a scoop of chicken salad, on the Plato Navideño (“Christmas plate,” $10). While the chicken salad desperately needs salt, the largish tamale bows to none other in excellence. Called hallaca and available separately for $6, it comes wrapped in a banana leaf, the masa colored bright orange with annatto. The numerous and variable fillings usually include small cubes of beef, raisins, mild green chile, and pimento-stuffed olives.
By the third visit, we were exploring some of the real duds on the menu. An order of pasta con albondigas ($5) turned out to be plain old spaghetti and meat sauce, with an American-style bolognese that tasted poured from a jar. As if to confirm this, the waitress appeared a few minutes later bearing a plastic bottle of Ronzoni grated parmesan. I closed my eyes as I twirled the last bite on my fork, musing, “Gee, I could be in Minneapolis right now.”