Corn-based arepas are a primary staple of the Venezuelan diet; they are equivalent to the bread Americans often pair with their everyday meals. One day soon after Heli Mendez came to the United States in 1997, he walked into a build-your-own-sandwich joint and was instantly struck by the familiar concept. “I realized it was comparable to the arepa bars back home,” he says. “At the sandwich place, they were doing it with specialty breads, European cheeses and deli meats, while in Venezuela we do it with some fresh meats, veggies and local cheeses.
“The difference [in America] is, because some people lack time to cook at home, they eat a great number of deli meats and bread, surely making awesome sandwiches! But I just wasn’t used to it. I knew we had this product, arepas, that, in a very similar set-up, using fresh ingredients, could be done in a way that would be appealing to the locals here.”
Appealing is an understatement. Along with partners Orlando Escobar and chef Jose Alvarez, Guasaca has served thousands of arepas at the flagship Raleigh location, opened about three years ago. The restaurant offers signature arepas – combinations the owners recommend – but you can build your own with any blend of ingredients you prefer, and for less than $5 per arepa. All ingredients are made from scratch every day – “it’s only raw produce and raw meats; there’s not a single can,” Heli says. Today, we went with the grilled steak, black-eyed peas, caramelized onions, white cheese and cilantro sauce (in their new yellow corn arepa; it’s a little sweeter than the white corn option – ask for a sample next time you stop in!) and grilled chicken with black beans, pico de gallo and white cheese. The sauce options feature prominent flavors from cilantro to a spicy red sauce to a honey-tinged mustard sauce with a kick. And the guasaca sauce, the restaurant’s namesake, with its many veggies and avocado base – that’s a game-changer.