Cafe Choroni, Albuquerque's first Venezuelan restaurant
In the late 1970s before political correctness taught us how racist we all are, it seems every man born to the last name Gonzalez, whether or not they liked it, sported the nickname “Speedy.” Speedy was, of course, the “fastest mouse in all of Mexico” in the popular Looney Tunes animated series. The premise of the cartoon was that Sylvester, a tuxedo cat with an exaggerated lisp, terrorized a horde of mice trying to abscond with cheese from the cheese factory under his charge. Only the intrepid Speedy, a sombrero wearing machismo mouse on perpetual hyper-drive could deter the “gringo pussy gato.” Amid cries of “¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba!” (colloquial Mexican Spanish for Come on! Hurry up!), the excessively energetic Speedy usually gave Sylvester a painful comeuppance.
My Air Force buddy Vladamir Gonzalez wasn’t spared the sobriquet of Speedy, never mind that he was Puerto Rican and lived life as if conserving energy. A gregarious, self-deprecating madcap, Speedy good-naturedly took liberties with his cartoon namesake’s trademark cry. In his version, it was “¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arepa! ¡Arepa!” My friend, a man of many appetites loved the culinary standards of his beloved Puerto Rico: sofrito, black beans, yuca, plantains and especially arepas, fried rounds of flour-based dough stuffed with seafood or sundry ingredients.
It wasn’t until many years later that I learned of the culinary heritage of arepas, a maize-based bread originating in South America’s northern Andes region. The genesis of the word “arepa” is thought to be the language of the Caracas natives on Venezuela’s north coast. For centuries, arepas were an important staple in the diet of impoverished Venezuelans and Colombians, but today they are eaten by rich and poor alike and are considered one of Venezuela’s national foods. Arepas are part of the daily diet in place of bread for most Venezuelans who love their versatility. They can be fried or baked, served plain or with a filling and at any time of the day as a snack, starter or appetizer.
The interior of Cafe Choroni
Restaurants and food stands known as Areperas abound in Venezuela and they specialize in preparing these small delights, splitting them in half then stuffing them with all manner of fillings like a sandwich. Because they’re so good, it’s been years since Venezuela and Colombia have held exclusivity over arepas. Their popularity has spread to other areas in Latin America, including Puerto Rico where my friend Speedy is from.
Arepas were originally made from dried corn kernels soaked in water and lime (much like posole) to remove the skins. They were then cooked, drained, dried and ground into flour. Today, ready to use masa harina (flour) is readily available which means arepas can be prepared in just a few minutes. Arepas bear some similarity to New Mexico’s ubiquitous tortilla, but even more so to El Salvador’s pupusa.
The Duke City has had a Salvadoran pupuseria (a restaurant specializing in pupusas) since 2005, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2009 that Albuquerque’s first Venezuelan restaurant was launched. Cafe Choroni is owned and operated by Nemo Morantes and Carlos Figueredo (pictured below), Venezuelan natives who have lived in the Albuquerque for about four years after emigrating from New York City. The formula for their restaurant’s operation relies on variables such as tradition, culture, local motivation, and a cast of supporting families which include accomplished chefs.
Carlos Figueredo, one of the restaurant proprietors delivers quesillo to our table
It’s a formula that promises to draw more than the forty or so Venezuelan families who live in the Duke City, all of whom have been very supportive of Cafe Choroni and at least one of whom seems to be an unofficial ambassador to newcomers. During our inaugural visit, a rather effusive young lady greeted us like lost family members, talking up the cuisine with the savvy and pride of a native. She then adjourned to a community table in the center of the restaurant where several Venezuelan families enjoyed each other’s company, a Saturday afternoon ritual. That sense of community and closeness reminded me very much of weekends spent in Bronx bodegas with my friend Speedy and his extended family.
Cafe Choroni is named for an inland hamlet boasting one of Venezuela’s best Caribbean beaches. The Figueredo family has had a summer home in Choroni for generations, braving hairpin turns winding through a dense mountainous forest to visit on many a weekend. A painting of Choroni’s beach by Carlos’s son Enrique hangs on one wall while a collage of photos hangs on another.
The restaurant has a homey and inviting feel. In addition to standard seating arrangements, a corner section of the restaurant includes comfortable couches, ostensibly for post-prandial parlance. The festive sounds of Venezuelan music resonate from the restaurant’s sound system, but not so loud you can’t enjoy conversation at normal levels. The counter where you place your orders bears a semblance to an overhang from a beach cabana. It’s a casual and down-to-earth milieu.
The menu is hardly sizable, but is very well balanced between elegant entrees (comidas) and what might be categorized as street foods in the most complimentary sense of the term. Rather than list the litany of ingredients in the restaurant’s four ensaladas, let’s give the dressings their due: fresh lime juice cilantro, yellow Peruvian sweet aji and pineapple lemon vinegar. These dressings, as the ingredients from which the salads are crafted, evoke a longing for clear, azure Caribbean waters and fresh, breezy sea air.
The comidas section of the menu includes only three entrees, one of which is a form of lasagna from Greece. Pastichio is very popular in many Latin American countries where it is often made with plantains. Cafe Choroni’s version–chicken lasagna with “New Mexico’s green chili sauce”–plays tribute to the Land of Enchantment. Carlos recommends it highly.
Not only because of the experiential aspect, but because they’re just good, the arepas are absolutely not to be missed. Stuffed with an impressive array of ingredients such as carne mechada (shredded beef), cerdo (pork loin), pollo (shredded chicken), ques blanco (white cheese), and even de atun (tuna), the arepas are a nice alternative to the ubiquitous American sandwich. If, however, you have to have a sandwich, Cafe Choroni will oblige with an array of panini sandwiches–where Latino flavors meet the Italian cuisine within the confines of a restaurant in New Mexico. Paninis are available in four-inch and eight-inch sizes at throwback prices especially considering the prodigious portions and ingredient quality.
Arepa de Atun (Tuna Salad)
If your tastes lean more toward sweet than savory, but you still crave the fresh, sweet taste of corn, the menu answers your craving with two cachapas (sweet corn pancakes). One is served with butter and the other with white cheese. Because they’re made with kernels of corn, they tend to be thicker and lumpier than pancakes. Like pancakes, they’re popular for breakfast, but unlike pancakes, they’re often sold in roadside stands.
If arepas are considered one of Venezuela’s national dishes, Pabellón criollo is, according to the Venezuelan Food and Drinks blog, “emblematic of the country; a hearty plate of simple food that mirrors the national flag and highlights the special mix of races that has made Venezuela a country of beauty queens.” Pabellón criollo is translated as “Crole Flag,” in recognition of the patriotic significance it holds for some Venezuelans who see the yellow, red, blue and white of the national flag in the colors of the ingredients. Pabellón criollo is commonplace in restaurants throughout Venezuela, but by any measure, it is hardly common.
Pabellón criollo is a combination plate featuring carne mechada (shredded beef), arroz blanco (white rice), caraotas negras (black beans) and tajatas (fried plantains). In Choroni, the beach community not the restaurant, the shredded beef is often replaced with cazon (baby shark). Baby shark is hard to come by in Albuquerque, but the shredded beef is no consolation prize. The carne mechada is deliciously seasoned and moist with nary a bit of sinew or toughness. In texture, flavor and heritage, it resembles Ropa Vieja (literally “old clothes”), a popular Cuban dish
Arepa Cerdo (Pork Loin)
The rice is fluffy and nicely seasoned, a pleasant surprise. The black beans are topped with a shredded white cheese and are perfectly prepared, neither too hard nor soft. Our favorite, however, are the plantains which are ripened and fried. These soft beauties have enough sweetness to contrast yet complement their plated brethren.
With eleven different arepas from which to choose, you’ll be hard-pressed to pick one so your best bet is to order at least two, preferably two with dissimilar textures and tastes. If you order a meat based arepa such as the cerdo (pork loin), ask for aji on the side. Aji is a yellow Peruvian hot pepper whose flavor and texture on your palate resemble Chinese mustard without the lasting effects. Aji enlivens the flavor of meats and fish and spreads nicely on the corn-based arepas.
The pork-filled arepa is delicious with a generous endowment of pork, quite unlike the chintzy cold-cut sliver slices served at many American sandwich shops. The pork is also as white and unblemished as the best cuts of pork.
The arepa de atun (tuna salad) features tuna the way I learned to love it in Massachusetts–heated, oil packed and made only with mayonnaise. The arepa is overstuffed so you’ll want a spoon handy to scoop up any tuna that spills out.
It’s become almost de rigueur for sandwich shops offering paninis to serve a version of a Cubano. Cafe Choroni is no different, serving a Cuban Panini crafted with ham, roast pork and Swiss cheese sandwiched on Ciabatta bread with a smear of creamy yellow aji sauce. The aji invigorates the sandwich with its tongue-tingling heat–just enough to get your attention, not to detract in any way from the complementary ingredients. This is a delicious Cubano, one of the very best in the city.
The Cuban Panini is served with plantain chips which resemble potato chips in the way they are cut and fried, but also because of their starchy qualities. Unlike potato chips, however, plantain chips aren’t overly salted. In fact, they’re just a bit sweet and a bit salty, a good balance.
Another excellent panini is the Asado Panini, crafted with sliced round eye beef, tomato, shredded lettuce and white cheese served on a Ciabatta bread with a touch of the restaurant’s Nuevo Latino Caesar dressing. Similar to the Cuban Panini, it is generously endowed, a bountiful feast between bread slices. Unlike some panini sandwiches, it isn’t smashed thin. In fact, it’s literally bursting a its seams with ingredients–and with flavors.
The Asado Panini comes with yuca chips. Yuca (sometimes spelled yucca like the New Mexico state flower) comes from a starchy tuber and is a very versatile ingredient. It’s said that anything you can do with a potato, you can do with yuca which does have a taste and texture similar to a potato. One major difference is that yuca is somewhat lighter tasting than potatoes. That goes for yuca chips which are a nice alternative to the more salty, more crispy potato chip.
Empanadas con queso aren’t on the menu, but maybe they should be. Served warm, they are as light as biscuits and the cheesy innards aren’t overdone.
Empanadas con queso
On a good day (and I’m inclined to believe any day dining at Cafe Choroni is a good day), you’ll find under glass in a pastry case at least one dessert. Try the Venezuelan equivalent of flan which is called quesillo. The differences are noticeable. Quesillo is much richer, almost adult-like in comparison to standard Mexican flan. It is made from eggs, condensed milk and caramel and isn’t as much sweet as it is rich and creamy.
Cafe Choroni invites you to have a cup of coffee and experience unforgettable food and good company. It’s a restaurant in which you’ll feel welcome and won’t rush your stay.
3120 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 June 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Arepas, Paninis, Quesillo, Pabellon Criollo