According to the New York Post, the beleaguered South American nation of Venezuela may be the easiest place on Planet Earth in which to become a millionaire. Of course, a million Bolivars in the inflation-ridden nation is worth only about fifty-three cents. In 2018, Venezuela’s Central Bank actually began printing $1,000,000 bills. Years of hyperinflation devours the income of Venezuelans, leaving them hungry and struggling to buy food and medicine. Many Venezuelans scour through garbage to find food while millions of others fled the country to build new lives across South America and beyond.
You wouldn’t know life in Venezuela is so difficult if you speak with Maria Laura, a perpetually smiling server at El Chamo Arabe. Maria Laura has reason to smile. She’s been in the United States for only a month. She’d prefer to extol the virtues of her country and its beautiful people rather than focus on Nicolás Maduro, the autocrat and dictator who has ruled Venezuela since 2013. Maria Laura’s cousin Paola Maried co-owns El Chamo Arabe along with Ibrahim Jamaleddin. Both are also immigrants who escaped Venezuela six years ago to make a better life for themselves in the United States. Paola’s background is in restaurant management while Ibrahim handles himself very well in the kitchen.
El Chamo Arabe is located in the space previously occupied by El Alwan Cafe and before that Need A Pita. Some of you might even remember that location as the former home of Bayti Mediterranean Delicacies. As you approach the familiar space you’ll espy the subtitle “Venezuelan & Mediterranean Food.” Ponder the last time you visited a restaurant that served that unlikely combination. Our inaugural visit to El Chamo Arabe was the first time we even considered that there could be cohesion between the cuisine of two such diverse nations. If you’re into etymology, you’ll appreciate just what the restaurant name “El Chomo Arabe” means. Essentially, it translates from Spanish to “The Arab Chum” or better “The Arab Dude.” Chamo, by the way, is similar to the Spanish term “chamaco” which means “kid.” The feminine version of the term is “chama.”
As you study the menu, it won’t take long to discern that the menu is divided into familiar Mediterranean entrees and appetizers and Venezuelan dishes which may not be quite as familiar. Half the menu is dedicated to the former and half to the latter. Let Ibrahim and Maria Laura guide your dining path. Being Arab means Ibrahim is intimate with the cuisine of the Mediterranean. Having lived in Venezuela for years means he’s also got a good grasp of Venezuelan dishes. Maria Laura is surprisingly well-versed in English. She explained that she began learning English as a child in hopes that someday she would migrate to the United States.
As you peruse the menu, you might want to visit the glass counter where such pastries as pistachio baklava and tres leches cake are on glorious display. On the second shelf of the counter you’ll espy familiar American beverages (such as Coke) as well as beverages from Colombia and Venezuela. Maria Laura told us the Colombian and Venezuelan beverages are sweeter than Coke, but if we’d rather have a less sweet beverage, the Mora (raspberry) is quite good. It bears a strong resemblance to Kool Aid’s Tropical Punch, a deep-red beverage that hints at tooth-decaying sweetness. The Mora is tangy and fresh with flavors actually reminiscent of raspberries. Best of all, it’s not especially sweet.
Over the years, we enjoyed baba ghanouj at the three previous tenants, all of which specialized in Mediterranean cuisine. Every one of the previous occupants prepared it well. El Chamo Arabe upholds the tradition with the Mediterranean’s signature grilled eggplant purée enriched with tahini and seasoned with lemon juice and lots of garlic (and better yet, sumac). El Chamo’s version is about as thick as a bowl of mashed potatoes, but it’s resonant with the smoky, rich flavor of the grilled eggplant and its seasonings. The baba ghanouj is served with two slices of thick pita, tailored for scooping up the pureed deliciousness.
Among the familiar Venezuelan favorites are 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.
My efforts to convince my Kim to try the arepas (or something she’d never previously had) had the same effect of former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi trying to convince former President Donald Trump of…well, anything. My pleas fell on deaf ears, but then I’m the one who self-glosses as a gastronome around town. Better for her to have something she’s sure to enjoy than something she won’t. It’s better for my waistline, too, as I won’t have to eat two entrees. The familiar entree she ordered was gyros, just about as mainstream America as any Mediterranean dish can be. Even moreso were the accompanying French fries.
Recently I railed about gyros meat that is pre-cooked and pre-sliced for “heat and serve” ease. It’s not bad, but it’s not nearly as good as the amalgam of of beef and lamb sheared off the familiar meat cone. At El Chomo, there are telltale signs that the gyros meat is of the former variety. It’s sliced painfully thin and isn’t as moist as it would have been on the spit. This gyro is dressed with lettuce, onion, cucumber and a garlic sauce in place of the familiar tzatziki, all nestled comfortably within a thick pita. It’s a good sandwich sure to please all but the most finicky diners. My Kim finished it. That’s always a good sign.
As a culinary explorer, I HAD to have something I’d never before tried. Maria Laura recommended the patacones. The name “patacones” translates from Spanish to fried green plantains, essentially synonymous with “tostones.” Now, I like fried green plantains, but there’s no way I’d order an entree of twice-fried plantain slices no matter how pretty they may be. Fortunately El Chamo’s version is packed with ingredients–“green plantain sandwich topped with lettuce, tomato, shredded beef (or chicken), avocado, cheese, ketchup, mustard and garlic sauce.” Maria Laura encouraged me to pick up the four (one at a time) patacones with my hands, not to eat them with a fork. As messy as they are, this colorful entree is uniquely delicious, an amalgam of flavors that just mesh. I joked with Maria Laura that the addition of a blue colored food item would make the dish the color of the Venezuelan flag.
Ironically, the element (fried green plantains) for which the sandwich is made is probably what I liked least about this sandwich. The shredded beef was definitely my favorite. It’s a very well-seasoned and moist beef perhaps marinated in a barbecue-like sauce. The patacones were somewhat reminiscent of the Garnaches at the Panaderia Guatemalteca Eterna Primavera (a must visit). Next on the hit parade was the very interesting and tasty interplay between the ketchup, mustard and garlic sauce. You might not use the three on a burger, but on the patacones, they combine to shine bright.
Desserts include quesillo (the Venezuelan equivalent of flan, it’s constructed with from eggs, condensed milk and caramel and isn’t as much sweet as it is rich and creamy); tres leches cake and pistachio baklava. Baklava, a delicious Greek dessert made up of layers of crispy phyllo dough, honey and nuts has never been a favorite dessert until someone had the brilliant notion that the nuts could be pistachio. Pistachios are a perfect foil for all the sweetness of the honey.
El Chamo Arabe has elements of the familiar and the unique. With both Mediterranean and Venezuelan delights sure to please your palate as well as an enthusiastic ownership team, El Chamo Arabe is another winner in a familiar location.
El Chamo Arabe
5017 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 18 March 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Patacones, Gyros, Baba Ghanouj, Pistachio Baklava, Tres Leches Cake