“Venezuela and Colombia are the two countries that eat more arepas than any other,” says Monica Muzzo. “In Colombia, they’re simple, with just cheese or egg. Venezuelans, we want to put everything on top.” At her two-week-old East Village eatery, Arepa Factory (147 Avenue A; 646-490-6828), the Maracay native puts an NYC slant on the authentic arepera from her homeland.
The restaurant’s layout and service counter is somewhat comparable to a Chipotle, only smaller and more intimate. The left side of the restaurant is flanked by a long bain-marie filled with ingredients. Options are more extensive than you’d find at most fast-casual spots, with chicken, ground beef, oven-roasted pork, black beans, shredded beef, coconut lamb, curry shrimp, and ceviche. Fresh basil, tomato, watercress, avocado, sun-dried tomato, and multiple cheeses are included in the toppings section.
A self-proclaimed sauce fanatic, Muzzo and chef Rafael I. De Garate have come up with eleven traditional and house-specialty sauces, ranging from tártara and green (cilantro, parsley, scallion) to chile-infused picante and the “Italiana” (tomatoes, basil, and mayo). Fillings (there are a total of 21) and accoutrements can be served in traditional arepas, a slightly sweet flatbread made from ground corn maize, or with cachapas, a similar but fluffier disk with fresh-ground corn mixed in.
Spinach, oatmeal, and chia-flaxseed arepas are available as well — but the corn-based buns are the way to go. Each is baked to order, and absolutely everything in the restaurant is gluten-free. “This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” says Muzzo. “At arepa places in Venezuela, you see all the options and pick what you want. Here it’s all sit-down Venezuelan restaurants.”
Guests can pick and choose, but the specialties are worth sampling. The pabellón ($9) is basically the country’s national dish, shredded beef combined with black beans, sweet plantains, and soft guayanés cheese. It’s slightly sweet, salty, and savory — definitely a must-try. Other authentic options include a chicken-and-avocado salad called reina pepiada ($8) and the zulia ($10.95), or coconut lamb, named after Muzzo’s home state. Customarily made with goat, it’s a beloved dish in the region.
Garate and Muzzo wanted to develop a menu that reflects their travels and the melting-pot cultures of Venezuela and their new home of New York. There are sandwiches filled with Thai curry shrimp ($10.95), lobster salad ($12.95), Peruvian-style ceviche, and the English fish ‘n’ chips–inspired inglesa ($9.95), with breaded fish, watercress, and tartar sauce. The americana ($9.75) mixes baby back ribs with Spanish cheddar cheese; the española ($10.95) Spanish chorizo and manchego.
Rounding out the savory side of the menu are finger foods like tostones ($3.50), mini fried arepas ($.75 each), empanadas ($1.50 each), and tequeños ($1 each), white cheese wrapped in pastry then fried. Desserts include Venezuelan flan ($4.95), passionfruit mousse ($4.95), and spicy chocolate mousse ($4.95).
Make sure to order a fresh juice ($2.99). Flavors include passionfruit, cucumber-mint, pineapple lemonade (from a recipe Muzzo has used for the past twenty years), and papelón. The latter is a riff on the ubiquitous Venezuelan sugarcane-and-lime-juice drink (Muzzo adds a bit of ginger for some spice).
An entrepreneur who’s worked in real estate and other freelance projects for most of her career, Muzzo has been thinking about opening an arepera for the past six years, collecting recipes and ideas. She’s seen the recent rise of arepa joints in the city, but Muzzo is still a bit surprised that many people aren’t familiar with the dish. Muzzo says about 90 percent of her customers have never had an arepa before. That’s exactly what she hopes to change. “I want everyone to know and to try it,” she says.