Good to Go
One of the most fascinating bits of Venezuelan trivia floating in cyberspace concerns ice cream. It seems an ice cream parlor in Merida, a semitropical city wedged between the highest peaks in the Venezuelan Andes, holds the world record for offering the most ice cream flavors. The shop serves some 640 different scoops including garlic, black bean and trout.
Café Venezuela, a restaurant north of LBJ, has a fame claim, too, though not because it serves fishy ice cream. Café Venezuela claims to serve "the only authentic Venezuelan food in town!" Not the boldest boast a restaurant could make, yet in a town that has some 6,000 restaurants, it might be something to get all puffed about. "Orders to go are our specialty" is another Café Venezuela motto, and while it seems prosaic, it looms large over the dining experience there.
More a narrow notch than a strip-mall storefront, Café Venezuela has a handful of handsome padded booths done up in a swell praline shade of vinyl for those wishing to enjoy their food in genuine "the only authentic Venezuelan food in town!" ambiance. But someone must have gotten confused when constructing the last booth because the last seat has another padded booth bench behind it, which means someone has to eat his Venezuelan victuals facing the wall while holding the food in his lap. This may be an authentic Venezuelan dining posture, though this could not be verified via the various Venezuelan travel posters flung on Café Venezuela's white walls.
Café Venezuela serves no alcohol, at least none that we could find, but it does serve a variety of fresh juices that taste as fresh squeezed as you can get without installing a vice in your kitchen. Passion fruit juice is nothing but clean tang with a sweet undercurrent. And while squeezing a melon seems like a crass thing to do among polite company, Café Venezuela's melon juice tastes like a slurp of drippings from a bowl of melon balls. They also serve guava and papaya juices.
Venezuelan cuisine is a cushioned collision of Caribbean and Spanish influences that manifest in staples such as empanadas (deep-fried turnovers), arepas (corn cakes that bulge with various fillings) and other things with names that sound more like exotic dog breeds than folksy victuals. Fried plantains must be something frequently eaten in Venezuela because they came with virtually every entrée ordered. They're delicious, with a moist fuzzy texture, a chewy exterior and flavor that has little wisps of sweetness.
Venezuelans also eat chicken soup, though it's not the kind you might get from Mrs. Grass. The broth is deep yellow with a rich chicken flavor. The broth held a whole drumstick among uncountable pieces of yucca and a slice of plantain.
Café Venezuela's empanadas, with various fillings, are thrilling little golden brown pillows with well-seasoned stuffing. The cheese was elegant and tasty--almost sweet--and it was not excessively gooey. Fish empanadas were moist, too, though the filling was a little like fish meal or something designed for people with declining dental health. The chicken was moist and chewy with a rush of seasoned flavor. This is in contrast to chicken arepa, a spongy corn cake stuffed with dry chicken.
For those not wanting to venture into anything too exotic, there's the asado negro, a tiny scrap of pot roast stained with a dark sauce the color of oil-pan drippings from a Chevy. Those drippings, softened with a slight sweetness, were a potent taste enhancer.
The bistec encebollado (steak with onions) was a thin strip of gray steak with a sautéed onion toupee. It flaunted little more than grease and gristle as it rested near a fluff of sticky white rice.
The pick of the litter was the pabellon criollo, a plate of shredded chicken with a patch of black beans next to white rice. The chicken was moist and exquisitely seasoned, sort of exploding in the mouth with every forkful, while the black beans were firm and tasty.
One of the dangers of dining in Café Venezuela instead of grabbing the food to go is that the place has no rest rooms. This is terrifying after two tall glasses of passion fruit juice and a side of black beans.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.