First Look

Former YouTube Chef Opens Arepa TX, an Inexpensive Arepa Restaurant on Royal Lane

The cheeseburger in an arepa, with a brisket and beef blend patty for $9.50.
The cheeseburger in an arepa, with a brisket and beef blend patty for $9.50. Nick Rallo
Every day, co-owner Susana Arce and executive chef MaryAnn Allen split up the routes — one spans from Northeast Dallas to Las Colinas, the other from Plano to downtown Dallas — to drive the food coming out of the Arepa TX kitchen to nearby businesses.

“We deliver our food in person — it’s the funniest thing,” Allen says with a smile. “We’re very hands-on. We take such pride.”

Once you meet the owners of Arepa TX, it makes perfect sense.

The cheeseburger, between two lightning-hot arepas — Allen's made-to-order corn shell — lands at the table. These arepas are stamped with grooves from a panini press. The patty is a brisket beef blend, flat-grilled with salt and pepper and topped with greens, tomatoes and onion so clean and fresh that you'd imagine a farmer delivered everything that morning.

Food is in Allen's blood. She’s lived all over: Guam, Bolivia, even a brief stint in Vanuatu after her husband got a construction gig. Growing up in La Paz, Bolivia, she and her mom, two sisters and two brothers shopped together for groceries at the market. She learned early on to check under a fish’s gills and eyes to determine freshness. She peeled peas with her siblings. Lunch and dinner, cooked at home and eaten together, were a daily ritual.

click to enlarge The Carne Mechada arepa ($7.50) is a stunner with slow-cooked, shredded beef and spiked with soffit and shredded cheese. - AREPA TX
The Carne Mechada arepa ($7.50) is a stunner with slow-cooked, shredded beef and spiked with soffit and shredded cheese.
Arepa TX
In 2008, Allen, who is Arce’s mother-in-law, lived in Northern California, chiseling away in the real estate industry.

“The bubble burst, and they lost everything,” Arce says.

Allen left the Bay Area and focused on cooking for her family. She made some videos with friends during the newborn age of YouTube. She wrote recipes, got them on camera and shared them online under the name The Frugal Chef. She built a following.

“This is easy; we’ll just teach you how to cook your food,” Allen remembers. “We were foodies before the word foodie existed.”

Around the same time, Arce was selling wine for an e-commerce company in New York when she fell in love with the city's fusion tacos and arepas. Korean tacos, for example, lit up her brain like a Christmas tree. Later, Arce and her husband found themselves in Dallas, and she unearthed a food void.

"We moved here, and I was like, there’s not an arepa restaurant. There’s Zaguan, but they have the classic arepa,” Arce says.

She approached her mother-in-law.

For six months, Allen pummeled her family with arepas to get the recipe right. There were deep-fried versions; thicker, Venezuelan-inspired versions; and small pockets.

“We had it for dinner and breakfast every day for six months,” Arce says, smiling at the memory. “I love the fusion concept. Arepas ... it’s like a taco — you can put anything inside.”

click to enlarge Arepa TX's arepas are grilled to perfection in a panini press. - AREPA TX
Arepa TX's arepas are grilled to perfection in a panini press.
Arepa TX
In Colombia, arepas are piled with ingredients. In Venezuela, they are stuffed pockets. Allen’s lean toward the latter.

The cooks, who work around the clock to make them every day, start with hot water. They whisk in flour to make a good porridge. They pancake the mixture back and forth with their hands and knead the dough for two minutes. It rests before being rolled out. The result is a thin, crusty shell on the outside, embossed in the panini press, with a light, fluffy interior. It tastes unmistakably of corn and some salt. They use seasoning lids to size each arepa.

The menu Allen developed is a tour of the world — the one Allen traversed — with big, fun and experiential flavors. There’s a Cubano, barbecue jackfruit, smoked brisket, a banh mi, a cheeseburger and a fish taco that will send a crystal clear memory of a ocean breeze shooting in your mind.

Carne mechada, an addition to the menu after some primal rage from customers who craved the old-school arepas found in Venezuela, is one of the city's great new sandwiches. Shredded beef is cooked for hours and tossed into a sharp, vinegary sofrito of leeks, onion and garlic. A neat nest of shredded cheddar tops the pocket after it’s stuffed in the corn shell.

“It’s a big education process — people don’t know what arepas are,” Allen says. “We wanted to bring something new here.”

Bun alternatives for burgers are often soul-crushingly awful, but these arepas are a bold exception. It's a big, fun, inexpensive burger. The arepas, in other words, remind you of the flavors a family-run joint should have: true and singular.

Arepa TX, 5940 Royal Lane
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Nick Rallo
Contact: Nick Rallo