Venezuelans are just beginning to sort out the legacy of their late former president, Hugo Chávez. Engorged with oil, their country is a land paradoxically replete with food shortages, corruption and violence, coupled with a youthful, artsy vigor and deep-seated culture poised to transform the fledgling energy superpower into a stable, cohesive nation.
Restaurant owner Javier Almeida and his family hail from Caracas, Venezuela’s bustling capital of more than two million. He minces no words in naming his takeout-only restaurant “Arrechissimo,” Venezuelan slang for “spectacular,” with a subtle spelling tweak giving a playful nod to his homeland’s eclectic mix of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Caribbean influences.
Arrechissimo, located in the tiny, working-class neighborhood of Deer Park, offers a one-page menu of Venezuela’s most beloved signature dishes. The place is easy to miss, marked only by a small sign and a few outdoor tables hosting a waxing-and-waning congregation of mostly Spanish-speaking customers picking up orders. But whether you speak Spanish or not, the food sings in a language nearly every American can understand, as if, with empanada thrust to the sky, it is crying out, “Bring me your fried, your beef, your huddled masa with chicken and avocado yearning to breathe free.” Amen, and pass the cilantro sauce (more on that later).
For as short and sweet as Arrechissimo’s menu is, it manages to boast a variety of items we Cincinnatians might not ever have experienced before. This can be intimidating at first glance but, rest assured, there’s a little something for everyone here, all well worth trying.
Among the “breakfast” items ($3-$6.50), which can be ordered all day, are the arepas: round, lightly fried discs of cornmeal stuffed with a choice of nearly a dozen possible fillings, including shredded beef, chicken, “reina pepiada” (a chicken salad mixture made green from avocado), “perico” (eggs scrambled with onion and tomato), cheese and prosciutto.
The arepa is serious business in Venezuela, and for good reason: It’s approachable, portable like a sandwich, crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, with intensely-flavored fillings limited only by the imagination.
While many people are familiar with empanadas — fried, crimped turnovers stuffed with meat — Arrechissimo’s are unlike any other. Not quite the size of a calzone, these are enormous versions of the savory treat, nearly a meal in themselves. My dining partner and I agreed our favorite was the beef empanada, filled with “carne mechada,” a surprisingly assertive shredded beef seasoned with garlic and red pepper, simmered in a “sofrito” sauce that lends the mixture a host of delicious aromas.
Rounding out the breakfast menu are cachitos, thickly breaded rolls filled with ham; pastelitos, crispy flying saucer-shaped pastries stuffed with beef or chicken; and tequeñon, deep-fried breadstick fingers made plump and fat from an abundance of queso blanco filling. They come in two sizes, and the cheese stays semi-soft even under high temperatures, creamy enough to satisfy yet firm enough to hold without making a mess.
Though more than half of Arrechissimo’s menu involves fried food, dinner entrées and some side dishes offer a respite from any oil overload. The Venezuelan Typical Plate ($11), a dish locals call “pabellón criollo,” is a generous portion of white rice topped with shredded beef, stewed black beans and slightly sweet, lightly sautéed slices of plantain. That it comes served in Styrofoam does the dish no justice, but what it lacks it photogenicity, it makes up for in rib-sticking, lip-smacking gratification.
One of the biggest stars on Arrechissimo’s menu is the 50-cent side of cilantro sauce, which is available in two spice levels. Electric-green and blended smooth, both varieties are a perfect (and in some cases, essential) condiment that can be used with virtually everything on the menu. The sauce is particularly effective at cutting through the greasier offerings. Drizzling this addictive concoction over a side of boiled or fried yucca ($4), a starchy vegetable with the texture of a sweet potato but a flavor not unlike an Idaho spud, is highly recommended. The sauce works magic on a side of hallaquitas ($1.50), small corn tamales filled with red pepper or pork.
Refreshing, fruity drinks are made daily, including passion fruit, strawberry and mango juices, as well as a frothy, super-sweet pineapple mixture vaguely reminiscent of an Orange Julius.
Food ordered at the window will take 10-15 minutes to prepare, so you can either brush up on your Spanish by chatting with neighboring patrons or call ahead.
Go: 8100 Blue Ash Road, Deer Park
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday