A long time ago, in a place far, far away, I occupied a small basement apartment.
Upstairs were the fancy places with incredible water and mountain views. Downstairs, I had a comfy little spot which opened to a tree-lined backyard shared with my basement neighbor.
At some point, my neighbor took an extended trip and had a friend housesit for her. I was immediately happy with my new short-term neighbor, Ruben, a cheerful flight attendant originally from Venezuela. He had a quick, big smile gleaming with adult braces, and a beautiful accent. He called me "Ceebee" and my cats, Jack and Bo Chabot, "Yack" and "BooBoo." Our friendship progressed from tips on speaking each other's native languages to cooking lessons, me teaching dishes from the Pacific Northwest and he the fine art of the arepa.
Basically maize-based patties, arepas are similar to Salvadorian pupusas and Mexican gorditas, that can be fried, grilled, steamed or baked and then topped or filled with all kinds of delicious goodies. Being that the arepa's origins are pre-Colombian, folks in the region they come from—now Colombia and Venezuela—have had a long time to master cooking and filling them.
Ruben taught me to make plain ones, which I could top with whatever I liked from butter, sugar and cinnamon to cheese and a fried egg, or cut open and fill like a sandwich. I was never able to make them as moist and crispy as he did, but I loved the rich sweetness the corn brought to something I had more commonly experienced as plain ol' bread or boring pancakes.
Ruben's accent and smile were on my mind as I entered Santarepa Café (229 Johnson St., 467-8379) for lunch. I wasn't three steps in when someone sang out, "Be right with you!" with that same lilting accent I had been missing.
The bright, clean space was packed with lunchtime diners, both local and tourists, and the menu was just what I'd been craving with more than a dozen varieties of breakfast and lunch arepas, plus cachapas (sweet corn pancakes) and empanadas. There was almost too much to choose from, but my anxieties wafted away when my eyes fell upon the #17; Santarepa Sampler 1 ($13.50).
Santarepa Café's sampler plates let diners choose different fillings from across the menu, all served up in mini "-ita" versions. The Sampler 1 consists of two arepitas and two empanaditas along with two cheese cachapitas and sweet plantains. Trying to cover all bases, my companion and I ordered the domino (cheese and black beans) and BLT for our mini-arepas and the jamon & queso for our mini-empanadas. If I could have fit more in my stomach, I would have also tried the La Vegana, a vegan filling of black beans, sweet plantains and avocado, and the Pabellon, black beans, shredded beef, sweet plantains and cheese. As it was, the smattering we ordered required the unbuttoning of the top button of my pants before I'd even made a dent.
And, oh! The arepas.
These were split open about two-thirds of the way and overflowing with stuffings. The outside had a thin, crispy fried crust, while the inside was soft and pillowy. Though mini, they were stuffed so full of ingredients that they were more filling than they looked; the black beans well-seasoned and slightly smoky, topped with salty cheese. The BLT contained a surprising amount of crispy bacon and the addition of a creamy garlic sauce with a satisfying herbal kick.
The empanaditas, meanwhile, were fried a beautiful golden color, the dough surrounding the salty ham and rich gouda was fluffy, sweet and light. If only every kid who loved Hot Pockets could try one of these.
The unexpected star of the sampler was the cachapas. These little rounds of cheese-topped corn cake were moist, delicate and chewy with kernels of corn adding to the texture and sweetness of each bite; an example of one of those dishes where the sum adds up to more than the parts. Santarepa Café offers both a savory garlic sauce and brightly herbal chimichurri sauce that lend an extra layer of "yum" to something already delicious.
It took a while for the dishes to arrive but I was kept very happy by a large glass of tart, fresh passion fruit juice ($2.50). Once the food was settled in front of me, my server pointed out that everything was fresh, handmade, which is why it takes a little longer than some people might expect. But I could have spent all day listening to the voices and smelling the smells in this lovely family-operated spot so I just smiled and responded, "Good things come to those who wait, right?"