Hungry for pizza? Or are you in the mood for something more exotic - say, an arepa? Moises and Mary Mendez offer both at their spartanly furnished storefront in Mesa.
One door leads to the take-out counter of the Rosati's Pizza franchise the couple owns. The other leads to My Arepa, the Venezuelan restaurant they opened a few months ago when they noticed how few Valley restaurants (precisely zero) focus on the cheese- and corn-centric snack foods of their homeland.
It's not uncommon to find Venezuelan expats at one table and Chicago-style pizza fans at another. The restaurants share a kitchen and dining room, the latter so completely devoid of charm it resembles an employee lunchroom. Trust me, you won't give a hoot about ambiance once you taste just about anything from My Arepa's menu, which focuses on eight or nine snack-y Venezuelan specialties, most of them crisp-fried and comforting.
Arepas are the "bread" of Venezuela - flat, unleavened patties made of cornmeal (think masa), which may be grilled, baked or fried and either topped or filled with meat, cheese, fish, shrimp or even salad ingredients. My Arepa's menu features six cheese-filled varieties, four meat-filled and five specialties.
Venezuela's national dish is Pabellon, a combo of shredded beef, rice and stewed black beans, often served with sweet plantains. Here, it's offered in a specialty arepa with white cheese but no rice, a deliciously messy griddled "sandwich" with sweet notes of plantain ($5).
Reina Pepiada, another fancy arepa filled with avocado and mayo-bound chicken salad, is pale green and pretty but not half as fun as Arepa de Chicharron - a puffy, deep-fried pancake, studded with nuggets of smoky, fried pork rind ($2).
But the best arepa is the simplest, filled with nothing but butter and warm, melting cheese (in this case, semi-hard Guayanes), the butter dripping from fingers to plate and mopped up again with the arepa ($3.50).
Forget what you think you know about empanadas and pastelitos (both half moon-shaped pies filled with meats, cheeses and/or fruit). At My Arepa, empanadas are made from corn (not flour) and deep-fried so brown and brittle they practically shatter when you bite into them. Meanwhile, pastelitos are made with flour, which renders them more tender and pastry-like. Between the two, I couldn't pick a favorite (OK, maybe the crunchier empanadas). Both come with various fillings: queso blanco (the ubiquitous white cheese), shredded beef, chicken or carne molida, a flavorful ground-beef filling that drips with greasy juice ($3 for the empanada, $2 for the pastelito).
Domino, the name for thick, flavorful black beans and white cheese (get it?), makes a good filler, too ($3.50).
Cigar-shaped, deep-fried breadsticks called tequeños are Venezuela's most popular party food. Filled with more melting white cheese and served with garlic cream sauce, they come closest to resembling an accessible American snack, finished off in two or three bites (3 for $3, 12 for $10).
Meanwhile, the most unusual dish is surely patacon, deep-fried green plantains often eaten in South America like potato chips. Mendez slices them length-wise and deep-fries them, using them as bread for sandwiches piled with shredded beef, chicken or cole slaw. The cole slaw, jazzed up with white cheese and salsa rosada (a thin pink sauce of mayo and ketchup) makes a tasty, crunchy vegetarian option. But I prefer juicy shredded beef or chicken, both nicely spiced and drizzled with guasacaca, a thin green sauce composed of olive oil, garlic, avocado and cilantro ($6 each).
But my all-time favorite dish is probably the cachapa, a griddled corn cake that's thicker, softer and sweeter than the arepa. Lumpy with corn kernels, it's filled with meat or cheese and folded over like a tortilla. I like it best with queso de mano (a fresh white cheese reminiscent of fresh mozzarella, $6), but it's also yummy with cheese and thinly sliced ham ($7).
Deep-fried sweet plantains, caramelized and crisped at the edges, are the best I've ever had, heavenly with queso duro, a salty hard cheese grated over the top ($5).
Wash everything down with guanabana soursop, tart-sweet papelón con limón (made from raw hardened sugar cane pulp and lime juice) or a sweet frothy mango shake (juices $2; shakes $3). And try to save room for quesillo, dense flan made with plenty of eggs ($2).
Choosing between pizza or an arepa? Come on, that's a no-brainer.