Leonardo Molina, the owner of Bushwick’s Arepera Guacuco, grew up on the island of Margarita, which lies just off the coast of Venezuela, in a typically warm, azure, swath of the Caribbean Sea. He ate well as a kid – his mom was a talented chef with a restaurant of her own. He lived well too, growing up on the beach across the street from his home.
When he was in high school, he moved to New York to be with his brother, and never left. When the time came to figure out how he wanted to make a living, he knew exactly what we wanted to do. He wanted to open a restaurant serving traditional Venezuelan food, to bring a taste of the tropical paradise he grew up in to Brooklyn, a place that hungrily absorbs every whiff of tropical paradise it can find.
He put together a business plan, found a location and lined up some loans. The one missing piece? He had to convince his mom to come to New York to cook. He persuaded her to give it a shot, and together they opened Arepera Guacuco just over two years ago. We stopped by to talk with Leonardo and to taste Guacuco’s signature dish – the arepa pabellón.
So Leonardo, just tell us – what should we have?
I would suggest an arepa that we call the arepa pabellon. Pabellón criollo is one of the most famous, most traditional dishes of Venezuela. It’s shredded beef with sweet plantains, black beans and rice all served on one plate. For the pabellon arepa, we take those same things, with the exception of the rice and the addition of some queso de año, and we use them to fill an arepa.
Arepa is another very typical, muy traditional Venezuela food. It’s kind of like our version of a sandwich, and it’s very popular anytime – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack time…anytime. Arepa itself is a sort of bread. It’s something kind of between a tortilla and a bread in texture, almost like a pancake that’s made with white corn flour, water, and salt. That’s it.
To start, we make the corn flour, water and salt into a dough and form it into a nice round shape. Then we put it on the griddle for five minutes or so on each side, to let it form a nice toasty crust. After that we put it in the oven at pretty high heat for like five minutes, maybe a little more, to let the inside part of it cook as well. When it’s ready, it has a really nice savory corn flavor. It has a little bit of a browned, toasted crust on the outside, and is really soft and steamy on the inside.
When we take it out of the oven, we open it up and we scoop out some of the inside to make room for our filling. In Venezuela, so many things can be used for filling an arepa. It can be anything from eggs to fish to ham and cheese, or even vegetarian things. The pabellon is one of the most popular ones on our menu. With the shredded beef, sweet plantains, black beans and queso de año, it has a lot of different flavors that work really well together. It’s very tasty and very satisfying.
My mom is the chef here. She’s been a really good cook forever. Back in Venezuela, she had a restaurant. She really knows what she’s doing when it comes to Venezuelan food. She knows how to make Venezuelan food as well as anyone. She knows how to do it right. Everything on our menu from the arepas, to the fillings and the sauces used to season them, to the empanadas, the rice and the salad dressings are her recipes. So of course this arepa Pabellón is her creation too.
To make the filling, we start with the shredded beef. It’s done in the completely traditional Venezuelan way. We take the piece of beef and we boil it in water, but gently, for about two hours. When it comes out of the water, it’s really tender. We pull it apart with the hands. That’s how it’s shredded.
Meanwhile, we make the sauce we use to season the beef. It has tomatoes, onions, red peppers, green peppers, garlic, adobo chile, cumin, and a whole bunch of other spices. Once the beef is shredded, it goes into the sauce, and we simmer the beef and the sauce together for about two more hours, to let the flavors in the sauce to concentrate and really soak into the beef. When it’s done, it’s very, very tender and juicy, and full of a lot of flavor.
Then we have the sweet plantains. These too are a very typical part of Venezuelan cuisine. You see them all the time in Venezuela, as side dish, or as part of a bigger dish. Everyone loves sweet plantains. They’re a kind of banana, you know? The secret is that you have to wait until they’re really, really ripe before you use them. They have to be between yellow and black on the outside before they’re ready. Closer to black, really. When they’re ripe, we just slice them up and fry them in a little vegetable oil. No sugar, so salt, no seasoning, no nothing – just by themselves. When they’re done, they have a nice brown caramelized crust on the outside and that really soft, sweet banana flavor on the inside.
For the black beans, we use another pretty traditional preparation. First we soak them in water to soften them for a few hours. While that happens we make the sauce for the beans – some onion, garlic, tomato, salt, cumin and other spices, and a piece of sugar cane to add some sweetness. After the beans soak, we cook them for a few hours in that sauce, to let the beans really absorb all those flavors. In the end, the beans have that combination of salty and sweet flavor that is always so good.
And then there’s the cheese. We use the typical Venezuelan cheese called queso de año. It means aged cheese. It’s a kind of salty, crumbly white cheese that has a lot of nice flavor. We actually have it sent here from Miami because no one around here sells it. Miami has the biggest Venezuelan population in the United States, so they make a lot of Venezuelan stuff down there – all kinds of things like Venezuelan sodas, snacks, cheeses, junk food. There’s just no where else in the States that we can find the cheese.
So to put everything together, we fill the arepa with the shredded beef and the fried plantains and black beans, and then we sprinkle the cheese – the queso de año – over the top. So you have the really juicy, tender, shredded beef marinated in the sauce with tomato and onions and garlic and pepper and cumin, you have the sweetness of the fried plantains, and you have the beans which are both a little salty and spicy and sweet at the same time. That’s all wrapped up in the fresh arepa, which has that nice toasted crust on the outside and the steamy, soft inside, and a really nice corn flavor with a little bit of salt. The arepa absorbs some of the juices from the meat and the beans, but never falls apart. And then you have a little bit of the tangy, salty flavor from the cheese that really works nicely with everything else.
It’s a very typical Venezuelan thing to eat. And it’s really good. My mom knows what she’s doing. [laughter.]
So Leonardo, what about you? How did you end up with a Venezuelan restaurant here in Bushwick?
I was born in Venezuela, on the island of Margarita in the Caribbean. Everyone in my family back home had restaurants. That’s what we do – we’re good at restaurants. My mom and dad had a restaurant. My aunts had a restaurant. My uncles had a restaurant. It’s the family business.
There’s a slogan for Margarita – they call it, “The best kept secret of the Caribbean.” It’s true. Everybody knows Trinidad or Jamaica. Everyone knows the Caribbean, but not many people know about Margarita. I love it there. There’s tropical weather all year long, lots of white sand beaches, perfectly clear blue tropical water, some good beaches for surfing, and some that are protected from the waves that are good for babies and kids. Some beaches are secluded and empty and other are popular and crowded and like, a big scene. Some people like that. One of my favorite beaches there is called Playa Guacuco. That’s how I came up with the name for this place. It’s not just beaches – there are mountains in the middle of the island too, and lots of hotels and restaurants and things to do. It has something for everyone.
The first time I came to this country, I was in the second grade. We came to New York. I was like seven, eight years old. In third grade we went back to Venezuela, then came back again when I was in fifth grade. We were kind of back and forth. My parents would come up to work for a while, to make some money. We came with them.
When I started high school I was back in Venezuela again, on Margarita. My older brother had stayed behind in New York. After a while, I told my parents, “OK, I really want to go back in live with my brother in New York.” My parents were like, “OK, you can go and be with your brother in New York, but you have to really think about it and be sure that’s what you want, because if you go, you’re going to have to stay. We can’t have you going and coming back over and over again.”
So I thought about it a lot and I decided to come here. I finished high school here at the high school of economics and finance in Manhattan. I studied business in college here too. When I finished school I thought, “OK, so what am I going to be do? What am I going to want to be doing when I’m thirty, forty, fifty years old?” I knew I didn’t want to be a typical businessman. I can’t be in a nine-to-five job. I’m not good in an office. I knew I needed a little more freedom, to do something on my own. I was like, “Well, everyone in my family has restaurants. I guess it runs in the family. So, OK, I guess I’m going to do a restaurant.”
I called my mom. I said, “Mom, I want to open a restaurant serving Venezuelan food up here in New York. I have the financial projections. I have lined up the loans. I’ve found a space in Bushwick. I just need you. I can’t cook like you can cook. I need you to come and cook. Please. Just come and cook the food you love to cook.”
I’m her son, you know? She loves me. [laughter.] She couldn’t say no! So she came over here to cook. A lot of the Venezuelans who come to the restaurant, they always tell us the same thing. They say, “Of all the Venezuelan restaurants we’ve been to in New York, this is the most typical one. The most authentic.” I think that says a lot about the way we prepare the food here.
Do you miss being back home, in a tropical paradise?
Every day, man. [laughter.] Every day. I used to live in an apartment right across from the beach. I used to open my window and hear the waves breaking. I would look out and I would see the beach, palm trees, and blue water. Here, I look out my window and I see cars and buses and buildings and everyone is always in a big rush. [laughter.] But I like both places a lot. They’re like completely different worlds. They each have their pros and cons. But I definitely miss the tropical Caribbean weather though. Especially at this time of year. [laughter.]
Arepera Guacuco is located at 44 Irving Avenue, at the corner of Troutman Street in Bushwick.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.