Maize craze: Venezuela’s cornmeal arepa is on the rise in Baltimore

From spam and eggs to caramelized duck, there's a place where every cuisine belongs: inside an arepa.

Gluten-free, handheld and suitable for breakfast, lunch or dinner, the crunchy cornmeal pockets are on the rise in Baltimore. El Gringo Baltimore, a food truck that hit the streets last month, is the latest to serve the Latin American sandwich substitutes as a main item on its menu. It opened on the heels of the arepa bar White Envelope, which made its debut in R. House food hall in December.

Alma Cocina Latina became the standard-bearer for arepas (pronounced ah-RAY-pahs) in Baltimore when the Canton restaurant brought them to the spotlight. In the two years since the Venezuelan hot spot opened, executive chef Enrique Limardo estimates Alma has served 70,000 arepas and used 12 tons of Harina P.A.N., the Venezuelan brand of boiled cornmeal used to make arepa dough.

The corn-based patties can be made in any size, from silver-dollar pancakes to burger-size buns, as long as they can be cut lengthwise and stuffed.

Venezuelans eat arepas nearly every day, Limardo said, and in addition to being stuffed, they are often served alongside soups and stews in place of bread. Venezuelans commonly add pork crackling to arepa dough, and sweet-and-savory combinations are essential to the country's cuisine.

"For Venezuelans, [the] arepa is really, really attached to the culture because our ancient ancestors, they made it," Limardo said.

Arepas were first made by indigenous tribes in South America with pounded corn, and today they're made with precooked cornmeal — a staple in Venezuelan homes, said Alma owner Irena Stein, who also hails from Venezuela.

Diners faced a learning curve when Alma first introduced arepas, but now customers return for their favorites (and are sometimes upset when the menu changes, Stein said).

"I always tell the people, 'Is that your first arepa? I'm glad you lost your virginity with us,'" Stein said.

Stephen Carey, former chef at Waterfront Hotel in Fells Point, is the latest to adopt arepas. His food truck, El Gringo, serves six types of arepas as well as tacos.

It was only a year ago that he tried his first arepa.

"Working in the [food] industry, you get to know a lot of Latinos, and over the years [I've] made many Latino friends and been introduced to culture and cuisine," Carey said. "I just always had a fondness for that type of food but never heard [of] or obviously tasted an arepa until last year."

A friend who worked at Alma told him about arepas and brought him one to try, stuffed with carnitas.

"As soon as I ate it, I was like, 'This was amazing,'" Carey said.

He learned to make the dough and immediately felt the need to share it.

"The first time I ate it, it just took off," Carey said. "They're so easy to make, and they're so simple. The stuffings are endless — whatever you can put in a taco or sandwich, you can put in an arepa."

Making the dough is simple: it's a combination of boiled cornmeal, water, salt, oil and perhaps a pinch of sugar. That's the philosophy at Alma and El Gringo.

"We respect the traditional arepa itself as the dough," Limardo said.

Some chefs, like White Envelope owner Federico Tischler, add other ingredients like beets, blood sausage or pork crackling, giving the dough a different color and texture.

After the dough is prepared, chefs form a patty about a half-inch thick and cook each side on a flat-top stove to achieve a crunchy crust on the outside. The whole process takes less than half an hour.

Carey does the legwork at B-More Kitchen, the food incubator in Homeland. But he has a flat-top stove and oven on the truck to heat the arepas.

He says about half his customers are familiar with arepas, and many are trying them for the first time at his truck.

El Gringo's arepas appeal to American palates with fillings such as "pork cubed" (spam, pulled pork and bacon with honey chipotle barbecue sauce); veggie and cheese (sauteed vegetables, goat cheese, red pepper mayonnaise, greens and chimichurri); and Mexican crab cake (lump crab, peppers, onions and remoulade).

When it comes to stuffing, Limardo says you can do no wrong. The fillings in Alma's arepas are all over the map, taking dishes traditional to various regions of the world and putting them in arepa form.

A few on the menu now include La China (stuffed with cured caramelized duck, plum sauce, green onions, fresh cilantro, sliced jalapenos and soy vinaigrette); La Arabe (made with grilled lamb and eggplant in coconut and curry sauce, black bean hummus and passion fruit-cilantro tabbouleh); and La Nacional, a nod to Venezuela (shredded beef in a tomato base, caramelized sweet plantains, slow-cooked black beans and sofrito, and cilantro).

Tischler's arepas at R. House are snack-sized and come with creative fillings that pay homage to Venezuelan figures. The Literate Pig, named for National Photography Prize winner Luis Brito, is stuffed with roasted pork leg, lime mayonnaise, tomato and arugula. The Queen and her Crown, a beet-dough arepa named for Susana Duijm, Venezuela's first Miss World pageant winner, includes roasted chicken thigh, avocado mayonnaise and sweet peas. And Eva and Jose's Goats, an arepa stuffed with herbs, arugula, confit cherry tomatoes and fried green tomatoes, is a tribute to Venezuelan artisan cheese makers.

Stein describes the options for arepa fillings as "complete freedom."

"You literally can use it for anything," she said. "We believe that the arepa is the next thing after the taco. And the taco has a much more particular flavor, and it goes well with Korean food, this and that, but it doesn't necessarily go well with all the foods. The arepa, when it's virgin — we call it virgin when it's not filled up — really adjusts well to anywhere in the world."

Limardo estimates his team has offered 40 varieties of arepas since the restaurant opened; La Nacional is the only one that's remained on the menu from the start.

While few other local restaurants place an intense focus on the cuisine, some, such as Points South Latin Kitchen in Fells Point and XS in Mount Vernon, have offered them as one-off dishes.

Kevin Connell Muth, 29, said the versatility of arepas is part of their appeal. "I can't imagine ... if someone doesn't like a certain thing, not being able to work what they do like into an arepa," he said.

He was meeting friends for lunch at El Gringo near the Loyola University campus on a recent Thursday. He tried El Gringo's grilled veggie arepa — the only one on the menu he hadn't sampled.

Erin Drew, 33, was with him. The Nottingham resident had been following the truck on social media, and it was her second day in a row coming for arepas. She has Celiac disease and can't eat gluten, so she said she was glad to discover arepas when White Envelope opened.

"I'm completely obsessed with arepas now that I've had them because it's all corn, and I can eat them and they're absolutely delicious," she said. "It's just like tacos but it's like heartier, so it's like a sandwich made of cornmeal. It's really yummy."

Stein attributes the popularity of arepas to just that.

"The fundamental thing is that they're delicious," Stein said, "and we don't know anyone that doesn't like them."

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