A replica section of the multi-coloured floor of Simón Bolívar Airport in Caracas is the first thing customers see when they enter Ávila Arepa on Whyte Avenue.
To many Venezuelans, it is a sentimental reminder of a country left behind.
Rolando and Samantha Sandrea are two of those Venezuelans who escaped the economic and political turmoil of Venezuela and charted a course to Canada.
The economic safety they hoped for was short lived when Rolando Sandrea was laid off from his job as a chemical engineer.
It gave him the impetus to realize his dream of owning a restaurant featuring the street food of his homeland.
Judging by the smile on his face, Sandrea is exactly where he was destined to be.
Ávila Arepa offers unpretentious, authentic food made by people who pack as much love into those pockets as they do meat, cheese and vegetables. If you’ve held one of these hefty South American sandwiches in your hand, you know that says a lot.
The corn flour arepa, similar to the El Salvadorean pupusa, is a round dough patty, grilled, then sliced open and packed with a variety of fillings.
Twelve traditional arepas are on offer, most featuring a combination of meat and cheese. The pelua, stuffed with tender pulled beef and sharp cheddar is perhaps the simplest, yet the one most favoured by our group of five.
The pabellón, according to Senor Sandrea, is the signature arepa with pulled beef, plantain, black beans and feta cheese. It certainly has the flavour, and with those ingredients, you’re going to be needing extra serviettes.
Like Ávila, the most famous mountain in Venezuela (and the restaurant’s namesake), the pabellón is the arepa to conquer.
La Candelaria, a chorizo and cheddar cheese arepa is similar to those found in the Candelaria (hence the name) district of Caracas.
The Spanish sausage provides loads of flavour, but the thinly sliced, drier rounds put up a noticeable resistance. Using a crumbled chorizo would solve that problem.
One arepa should satisfy most appetites, especially when accompanied by a serving of the yucca fritas, a sizzling-hot stack of cassava fries served with a chimichurri-style condiment heavy on parsley and cilantro.
The cachapa, a sweet corn pancake stuffed with the house-made white cheese called queso de mano is the highlight of the sides. Hot, sweet, savoury, gooey: it checks off all the boxes, and if you’re looking for more cheesy goodness, ask for the tequeños, little bread rolls stuffed with more cheese.
Drinks and dessert
The drink menu is simple with a handful of rum-based cocktails, a couple of well-known beers, some South American sodas and a non-alcoholic beverage called papelón con limón (sugar cane juice with lime).
That beverage, by the way, turns into the paperón by simply adding a shot of dark rum. Highly recommended.
Save room for dessert, even if it’s just a bite. You won’t go wrong with the tres leches, a creamy sponge cake laced with coconut, or the quesillo, Venezuela’s version of crème caramel.
Ávila Arepa is located at 10760 82nd Ave. Open every day but Monday at 11 a.m.; hours and updates can be found on their Facebook page.