Arepa Zone was the sixth of more than a dozen vendors to open for business in Western Market last week, pumping out the stuffed cornmeal pockets it’s named after – arepas – and other flavor-packed Venezuelan dishes.
Inside the food hall located at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave., Arepa Zone neighbors Rawish, the vegan, juice-centric vendor. If the stand’s bright yellow color scheme doesn’t catch your eye first, you’ll see employees flipping arepa dough and loading toppings on orders through a low glass barrier.
Like at the other open vendors, you can order your meal to go or for dine-in at the front counter of Arepa Zone where the menu is displayed above the register. You’ll hear your name called to pick up your order from the back right counter of the stand where you can also grab utensils, napkins and additional condiments.
With a deep history in Venzuelan food culture and other Latin American cuisines, an arepa is traditionally made with unleavened cornmeal dough that’s stuffed with ingredients like meat and cheese. Arepa Zone sells beef, pork, chicken and vegetarian arepa options along with tequeños – fried cheese sticks, patacón – a plantain sandwich, five varieties of cachapas, which are sweet, pancake-like siblings of the arepa, and a signature bowl.
If you’re not in the mood for a handheld dish like the arepas, cachapas or patacón, try the pabellón bowl ($12) with your choice of shredded chicken or beef, basmati rice, black beans and sweet plantains. Or for the indecisive, the vegetarian or meat-lovers arepa flights ($10) each provide a sample of three small arepas flavors.
Eager to try the vendor’s namesake dish, I ordered the pabellón arepa ($9) loaded with shredded beef, queso fresco, black beans and sweet plantains. I asked for my arepa to go in case I didn’t finish it, but with time to kill between classes, I sat at one of the numerous open tables in the market to try it out.
Slightly larger than the size of an average burger, my arepa came swaddled in a red and white checkered piece of parchment paper inside of a clamshell carry-out container.
The outside of the cornmeal dough was crispy and had visible brown charring from the girdle but maintained a warm, soft interior. After cooking, the cornmeal disk is sliced, but not all the way through, holding the mountain of ingredients together in sandwich form. Saucy shredded beef and cool queso fresco overflows from the center with a generous layer of tender, sweet plantains and garlicky black beans beneath.
The beef had a smoky yet acidic tomato-based sauce that complimented the banana-like sweetness of the soft plantains, and the cilantro-garlic sauce served on the side added a creamy and tangy flavor to each bite. As a spicy food lover, I also asked for a side of their hot sauce which tasted similar to Cholula or Valentina.
To wash it down, I ordered a cup of iced blackberry juice ($4.75), but you can also try mango, andean berry or passion fruit juice. It was a tangy, cool and refreshing addition to my meal. Or for a sweet treat, grab an order of the chocolate tequeños ($5.50) served with Nutella for dipping.
Next time you’re in Western Market, try out Arepa Zone and see how you rank it among the vendors to open so far.