Hicks Weekly Dish: Avila Arepa an example of “soul” BY GRAHAM HICKS FIRST POSTED EDMONTON SUN: TUESDAY, OCTOBER 10, 2017
Avila Arepa Urban Venezuelan Kitchen
Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dinner for two, excluding tip and beverages: basic, $18; loaded, $35
Food: 4.5 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 4.5 of 5 Suns
Service: 4.5 of 5 Suns
It’s so easy to say a restaurant lacks soul, far more challenging to define just what soul is.
Well here’s a restaurant that, by its very being, is chock-a-block full of soul.
We walked into the small, maybe 40-seat Avila Arepa close to the 109 Street end of Whyte Avenue, to be warmly greeted by a middle-aged fellow in a clean black T-shirt and a red bandana wrapped around his head.
Could we have a table as far as possible from the restaurant speakers’ music, we asked. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll turn down the music.” Which he did, immediately.
Rolando Sandrea was obviously the owner, manager and order-taker. Despite working some five tables of customers, he took the time to ensure we were happy, made sure we understood his Venezuelan quick-food concept and his menu.
Rolando didn’t have a clue that his restaurant was being reviewed — a fact not revealed until the end of a delicious meal served by such a friendly and gracious host.
Arepa, he told us, is a unique, grilled flatbread made from a pre-cooked cornmeal flour. Arepa is as popular in Venezuela as white bread is in North America. Avila is the neighbourhood Rolando grew up in as a child in Venezuela’s main city, Caracas.
The sky’s the limit as to what can go inside an arepa. The mini-plate-sized flatbread dough, once grilled and toasted, is sliced open, its interior piled high with ingredients.
Avila Arepas’ big chalkboard menu has classic arepas on one side, signature arepas on the other. The classics are arepas with pulled beef, chicken, pork and vegetarian options that could be bought from any Caracas street vendor.
The signature arepas are Rolando’s own creations. For a former engineer, he’s an artist in the kitchen. His shrimp, mushroom and chorizo sausage arepas are all named after Caracas neighbourhoods with some connection to the actual dish. They cost around $10. Each is a full meal unto itself. All come with a side of coleslaw.
Just as interesting – actually quite exciting – are Avila Arepa’s sidekicks. The French fries aren’t made from boring ol’ potatoes, but from sweet plantain or cassava cut into French-fry style sticks. In texture, they are as if French fries were miraculously lightened up, with delightful new flavours.
There’s lovely, oily, rich cheddar cheese everywhere on this menu, including the tequenos sidekick, i.e. battered cheese nuggets that are crispy on the outside, all hot “cheesy goodness” on the inside. The tequenos come with guasacaca sauce, a cilantro-aioli mixture that’s out-of-this-world good.
As for the moist, unleavened crumpet/focaccia-like arepas, bring me more!
The three arepas that we tried were excellent – the pulled pork/beef/black bean combo, shrimp, and chorizo ‘n’ cheddar were all yummy, messy flavour explosions.
The best, however, had to be El Paraiso, those bountiful plump, hot shrimp luxuriating in a sweet ‘n’ spicy home-made garlic and cilantro sauce, tossed in hot, melted cheddar. Honestly, El Paraiso is one of the finest street foods I have ever tasted. The chorizo/cheddar La Candelaria was not far behind, the pork/beef Pabellon equally close to La Candelaria.
As all the best restaurant proprietors do, Rolando pulled up a chair when he had time, for us to get to know him, him to know us. This beats the current definition of hospitality — watching a trendy bartender behind a trendy skinny bar making trendy cocktails.
An engineer by training, Rolando arrived in Edmonton just as the engineering sector was downsizing after the oil price crash. After being laid-off three times as the expendable junior guy, he said to himself, I know Venezuelan street food, I know a bit about design and hospitality … and nobody is Edmonton is doing anything special with arepas …
This is an inexpensive, fun, casual restaurant with many South American-inspired moods, depending on the time of day.
If you need a living, breathing example of “soul”, Avila Arepa Urban Venezuelan Kitchen be it.