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Use Your Noodle

From the strange store next door to the mystery bits in the soup, there's plenty to ponder at Arepas & Empanadas Gourmet

So which of these two arepas is the real thing? The corn pancakes common to Colombia and Venezuela (also found in Bolivia and Ecuador) vary by region. White arepas are made with ground dried white corn; yellow corn arepas can be made of ground dried yellow corn or fresh corn straight off the cob or a mixture of both; and quick arepas are made with precooked masarepa flour. They can have ingredients mixed into the batter, like the ones at Panaderia Central, which are made of whole corn with cheese and sugar added. Or they can be made plain and topped with other ingredients, like the ones Arepas & Empanadas Gourmet. These remind me of the pancakes at IHOP: The flavor comes from the toppings; the pancake itself is tasteless.

The empanadas aren't what I was expecting, either, but they're a pleasant surprise. I'm used to the kind of empanadas that have a sugary, pastrylike crust and are filled with camote (yam) or fruit. The meat-filled variety at Arepas & Empanadas Gourmet are much better. The outer skin of these fried pies is wonderfully chewy. The chopped beef is well seasoned and mixed with potatoes, and the chicken is minced in a tomato sauce. Both are served piping hot with salsa as an appetizer, although you could make a meal of about a half-dozen.

For dinner we try the pargo rojo, a whole fried red snapper served with french fries, yuca and green plantains, and a paella-like dish called arroz marinero. Before it's deep-fried, the sides of the fish are scored with a knife so the meat comes easily away from the bone. The good news about this cooking process is that the fish is extra-crispy; the bad news is that the meat is dry. I douse each bite with fresh chile salsa and I'm very happy with it, but my daughters complain that they like the moist red snapper à la plancha at Tampico better. And they demand an order of ripe plantains because they don't like the green ones. (Kids are so picky.)

What's that floating in the soup? Cazuela de mariscos is part of a traditional Colombian meal at Arepas & Empanadas Gourmet.
Troy Fields
What's that floating in the soup? Cazuela de mariscos is part of a traditional Colombian meal at Arepas & Empanadas Gourmet.

Location Info

Map

Arepas & Empanadas Gourmet

12792 Veterans Memorial Drive
Houston, TX 77014-2048

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Outer Loop - NW

Details

281-444-6377. Hours: Daily, 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Empanadas: $1
Arepa with chicken and avocado: $3.45
Cazuela de mariscos: $14.95
Arroz marinero: $15.95
Gourmet's Dish: $9.95
Pargo rojo: $15.95
Lunch specials: $5

12792 Veterans Memorial Drive

Likewise, I think the arroz marinero -- squid, scallops, octopus, krab with a k and fish in turmeric-colored rice with a sprinkling of green peas and a wreath of tomato quarters -- is quite delicious, but my far more critical companions find it boring. Flavoring a large amount of rice with a decent portion of seafood is an art developed by people trying to stretch expensive ingredients. And as such, it is an art lost on most Americans, who think in opposite terms: They don't think you should have to eat so much fattening rice to get to the tasty bits. The kids also thought the portions were ridiculously large.

So what's wrong with large portions? I took the rest of the seafood rice home with me. Besides, I find that it's generally easier to reheat than to recall.

Complaining about large portions is something that would never occur to me, or, I suspect, to the average patron at Arepas & Empanadas Gourmet. The restaurant caters to Colombian immigrants, not to the general public. If you go, your best bet is to try the cazuela de mariscos. It may be your only opportunity to sample fish noodles.

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