When it comes to London’s appetite for international cuisine, it’s usually a case of seek and you shall find.
Need a Neapolitan pizza? There’s a sourdough crust pie with a soupy centre on every high street. After authentic Baja fish tacos with pico de gallo? Park up at your closest collection of food trucks. Hankering for a hot pot? All signs point to Chinatown.
But for Venezuelan couple Gus Salguero and Kathe Cunin, their search for a taste of home in the Capital was proving fruitless. Well, not completely: they fell in love over a shared despair over London’s lack of a decent pabellon.
Gus and Kathe opened Arepa & Co in Haggerston in 2014, and quickly commanded queues along Regent’s Canal for their tequenos (crispy pastry cigars filled with molten cheese), flavour-packed parcels of cornmeal and beef, and cachapas topped with chicken and avocado, so it’s not surprising a second venture was soon to follow.
The duo branched out to Bethnal Green earlier this year, securing a prime spot in amongst the restaurants and bars housed in the railway arches lining Paradise Row.
It is from this position that a warm summer evening can feel a million miles from the buses barrelling along Cambridge Heath Road, particularly after a couple of rum cocktails.
Arepa & Co’s new home is much larger than the original, with enough kitchen counter space to introduce other South American flavours.
Pastries and plantains still dominate the pasapalos (share plates), but the dishes are more evolved; the former stuffed with chicken or purple potato and smoked cheese, the latter drizzled with aji Amarillo and fresh herbs.
Start with a couple and make at least one of them the Canoas de Maiz, soft, spiced corn dough with lashings of chilli and goat’s cheese and steamed inside a corn husk.
The main event is, of course, the arepas: South America’s answer to an open sandwich. Crispy pita-style cornbread is stuffed with juicy brisket, fried chicken or seafood, cheese, fresh herbs and sauces.
Traditionalists will favour the Pabellon – braised beef brisket, soft plantain and shredded cheese – but don’t discount the Reina: elevating a simple chicken and avo with tender, charcoal roasted pieces, chicken fat mayonnaise and a citrus-y dressing.
Those with heartier appetites should save room for the classic Pabello, a bowl of juicy shredded beef, black beans, cheese and plantain over rice described as Venezuela on a plate.
Head chef David Lagonell has been a little creative with vegetarian options like the Queso Azul of blue cheese, sweet potato, pickled onions and plantain puree, and the Sabich: a roasted aubergine and egg combination topped with pineapple and coconut chutney.
Weekend diners can also get stuck into Venezuelan brunch options ranging from the traditional Desayuno Criollo, eggs scrambled with peppers and onions and served with shredded beef and black beans through to the Cachapa Stack: a Western take on the corn-based pancake topped with crispy bacon, a fried egg, raclette and drizzled with sugar cane syrup.
Fruity rum cocktails and plenty of atmosphere on Paradise Row makes Arepa & Co’s second incarnation the perfect addition to the Capital’s culinary melting pot and perhaps the beginning of another great romance: London’s love affair with Venezuelan food.
Arepa & Co, 254 Paradise Row E2 9LE