With its crisp thin cornbread teetering on big pile of colorful fillings, the arepa is a nice looking sandwich. But because those very virtues make arepas difficult to eat, you know you are about to make a mess of this lovely thing. Such is the sway of entropy over all human institutions, and Americans wondering just how our sometimes-lovely nation might soon destroy itself can learn from the two great homelands of the area.
Will our vain and shallow culture get drunk on populism and fossil fuels, and then slip into authoritarianism? Then we might look to Venezuelan, once an oil-rich world leader in plastic surgery and pageant queens, now tilting toward fascism and famine. Or will our drug culture tear apart the social fabric, while alienated young men with few job prospects take up weapons and dubious radical (“alt”) politics? Then Colombia can be our guide, where a recent and fragile peace-through-amnesty might allow the nation to bind itself together after forty years of narco-political civil war.
Now Portlanders hoping to ponder either of these fates can do so with the appropriate lunch, thanks to the recent arrival in town of two separate arepa shops: Luis’s, with Venezuelan roots, and Maiz Colombian Street Food. That gives Portland nearly as many arepa spots as the island of Manhattan. It is a windfall.
Luis moved his arepera up from Saco. The sandwiches are just as good up here in a Portland space with even more scrappy charm than the old shop. A lone window counter looks out over some picnic tables onto a busy corner of outer Forest Ave. His crispy flat cornbreads are flash-fried golden brown and sliced down the middle. Just under the crisp corn is a soft interior to soak up the juices from the sandwiches' ample fillings. The tender shredded beef is infused with a garlicky tang of vinegar and a green herbiness. It is terrific. A vegetarian arepa features an avocado spread with big pieces of tomato, as well as sharp scallion and cilantro. The same sauce, a sort of guacamole-salsa-fresca, accompanies crisp fried plantains and the tender fried yuca.
The Colombian arepa is bigger and softer — one step closer to a tortilla. But there is no mistaking it for something so thin and floppy, especially when you see the thick bumpy beauties served up at Maiz — which occupies the front section upstairs at the Public Market House. The menu is simple, with just five arepas and a cheese bread. It is all they need. While Luis’s arepas are stiff enough to maintain a jaunty tilt, the Maiz version sags a bit to form a sort of pocket.
The “double meat” arepa takes the unexpected approach of lining its three main ingredients side by side rather than stacked vertically. The result is you proceed through a third of darkly rich shredded beef, then a middle section of herby and almost curry-yellow shredded chicken, and finally finish with a section of creamy farmer's cheese. Or you could go the other way. All three mingled with pico de gallo and soaked up a garlicky ajo sauce made with egg. The vegetarian version substituted tender black beans and hunks of avocado for the meats. Even the little cheese bread was terrific.
The sudden and surprising arepa-explosion in our town reminds us of the fundamental unpredictability of all human endeavors. Could the new Venezuelan constitutional assembly, hand picked to reinforce a dictator’s powers, surprise us with some compelling new form of socialist democracy? Could the Colombian elite come to provide the social and educational support necessary to allow former FARC narco-marxists to find useful roles in society? It’s doubtful. But you never know! And perhaps here in the US we can find a way to avoid our own descent into populist authoritarianism or opioid-addled armed conflict. Perhaps you can finish your arepa without making a huge mess. In both cases, it’s worth a shot.
Maiz Colombian Street Food | Public Market House, Monument Sq. | Mon-Fri 8 am-5 pm; Sat-Sun 10 am-5 pm | 207-400-2881
Luis’s Arepera and Grill | 948 Forest Ave., Portland | Mon-Fri 10 am-7 pm | 207-286-8646