New York is not exactly bursting at the seams with Venezuelan restaurants, so it’s a somewhat unlikely coincidence that two of them are a mere three blocks away from each other in the East Village.
Caracas Arepas Bar on East 7th Street has been peddling its namesake specialty, stuffed corn cakes, since 2003, and is so popular that it recently expanded to Williamsburg. Guayoyo (pronounced “wa-jo-jo”) opened up quietly about nine months ago on First Avenue, and has attracted inevitable, and sometimes unflattering, comparisons to its neighbor. For one thing, Guayoyo is hardly ever full, while there’s often a buzzy wait at Caracas. And though the two restaurants’ arepas themselves are nearly identical, the fillings at Caracas are perhaps more expertly cooked. But here’s a pitch for Guayoyo: It offers a larger, more diverse menu of Venezuelan specialties, and it’s much more spacious than Caracas, making it a friendly, unfussy place to eat with a group.
At Guayoyo, choose from about 17 arepa filling options, ranging from the simple—mild, goopy white cheese from the Guayana region—to the deluxe, like one with fried tilapia, greens, and spicy tartar sauce. The corn cakes themselves are the size of English muffins, grilled to a crisp-toughness on the surface, steamy and redolent of corn on the inside. They’re split open yawningly to accommodate their stuffings.
A version with chorizo features surprisingly bland slices of sausage, but one with grilled shrimp and buttery avocado tastes wholesome and satisfying. The Venezuelan avocado-chicken salad called reina pepiada appeals in a South American–deli way. (The salad’s name is a tribute to the Venezuelan Miss World 1955, and translates as “the curvy queen.”) The restaurant’s most persistent problem is a tendency to braise beef into terrible, crumbly sawdust, so skip the arepa filled with pabellón, the classic shredded skirt steak, or any other long-simmered cow.
Oddly enough, that overcooking problem does not extend to the restaurant’s pernil, which can be found in moist, garlicky shards on various plates. You can have it in an arepa, or mounded into a large, pork-fat-glistening pile with serviceable black beans and rice. But best of all, if you’re lucky and the dish is among the nightly specials, get it on a cachapa—a large, sweet corn pancake, cooked on a griddle until the edges are crisp while the innards stay as moist and fluffy as its American buttermilk cousin. For the special, the cachapa is stuffed with a river of melted white cheese and crowned with a handful of that tasty pernil. If you’re a sucker for the one-two punch of sweet and savory, this dish is a very enjoyable way to put yourself into a food coma for several hours.
Guayoyo peddles snacks it calls “tapas.” Try not to hold the overused term against the place. Chief among these sharable good things are arepitas: mini, canapé-like arepas mounted with bites of octopus, pork belly, or meatballs. Similarly, fried green plantains (tostones or patacones) are fashioned into small, crisp bowls that cradle beans and cheese or more of that curvaceous chicken salad. Our table quickly bolted down a bowl of tequeños, fingers of mild cheese wrapped in a thin layer of puff pastry and fried, like mozzarella sticks crossed with croissants. Guayoyo serves theirs with a sweet guava sauce, for yet more sweet-savory appeal. The snacks are a popular junk food in Venezuela, named after the chilly city of Los Teques. The story goes that the cheese sticks wrapped in their pastry resemble the children of the area, who are always bundled up.
Main plates at Guayoyo are a mixed bunch, mainly because the two traditional beef dishes—asado negro and that pabellón—are so over-braised. The grilled skirt steak, though, turns out to be a simple, tasty preparation, cooked to a juicy medium-rare, chewy and bloody-mineral the way that cut should be, and topped with a flurry of onions. The crisp, salty yucca fries soak up the beef drippings. Fried chicken is just fine—a generous pile of battered chunks that taste best when dipped in the restaurant’s homemade hot sauce.
One night, four of us sat and had an ultra-cheap carafe of the drinkable house red wine (the restaurant pours several affordable South American wines and beers) and debated over the dessert menu. We ended up with dulce de lechoza, a hard-to-find confection of green papaya cooked in syrup until it’s chocolate-brown and sticky, served with crumbled goat cheese. It took the sweet-savory theme of the night to an extreme conclusion, one that some liked better than others.
Guayoyo is named after a style of Venezuelan coffee ideal for sipping in the afternoon with a snack, a smooth concoction weakened with a bit of water—our waiter likened it to an Americano. The beverage is like the restaurant itself: mellow and easygoing, unlikely to get you overexcited but offering a dependable pick-me-up.