Maribel Araujo emigrated to the U.S. from Venezuela to pursue a career as a film and television producer. One day while working on a film in Brooklyn, she met a friendly man running a juice bar, who was talking to his clientele and playing very loud Brazilian music. “I sort of had an enlightened moment, and I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to have a little place where I can make natural juices, where I can make arepas, that’s it. I don’t want to pursue any TV, film career anymore,’ ” she told the Voice.
She opened the dining hall for her first Caracas Arepa Bar (93 1/2 East 7th Street; 212-529-2314) with her business partner (and now ex-husband) Aristides “Gato” Barrios in 2006 in the East Village. Before that, the duo had their takeout spot next door, at 93 East 7th Street, which they opened in 2003. Since then, her business has steadily grown across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens.
As the name suggests, Caracas specializes in arepas, using both traditional arepa recipes and family techniques. “At the end of the day, arepa is nothing else than the Venezuelan bread — it just has a different shape and is made out of corn flour. It gives you an opportunity to do whatever you want,” she said.
Generally speaking, Venezuela is big on cheese and meat, particularly pork. Vegetarianism isn’t a prevalent diet in the country; the restaurant takes a largely vegetarian approach because of Araujo. She makes sure there are vegetarian and vegan options, and makes sure, for instance, that the eatery’s beans are 100 percent vegetarian and that any meat can be substituted with tofu. You can even make your own arepa. “None of the [vegetarian arepas] are traditional combinations, but if you go to an arepera in Venezuela and if you ask for an arepa with black beans, cheese, avocado, tomato, and plantains, they‘ll make it for you.”
Four of the arepas on Caracas’s menu are vegetarian — la del gato, la mulata, volveré, and leek jardinera. The volveré and la mulata are the two most popular arepas.
The la mulata ($8) features an oozing, grilled white cheese-like patty with jalapeños, black beans, sautéed red peppers, and fried sweet plantains. The “cheese” becomes infused with the jalapeños, for an overall wholesome spice that’s hearty and earthy. The plantains sit at the bottom; once you bite into them, their sugariness intermingles with the spices.
In comparison, the volveré’s ($8) spiciness is more pickled, and the ingredients on this arepa dish, including the cheese, are cold rather than warm. With both dishes, the arepa itself is very thin and crisp on the outside. It also has a hidden sweet note that becomes evident when you eat the arepa alone.
For lack of a better descriptor, the tequeños ($9.50) are like a Latin mozzarella stick, though the cheese on the inside isn’t as gooey. The dough is very similar to an empanada crust, retaining that soft yet crunchy outside layer.