Entering Cafe Caracas from the commercial clamor of Westheimer is like stepping into a 19th-century bandbox. Imagine a turn-of-the-century sidewalk cafe turned outside in: The strip center storefront's interior is cleverly made over with architectural elements -- doorframes, decorative moldings, iron window grilles and wooden shutters -- applied to walls crisply painted in blocks of pastel blue, yellow, peach and pink, like miniature house fronts. A standing replica of a gas lamp guards one corner, and wall-mounted carriage lamps and street signs identify crossings in Spanish.
"Back then, the streets themselves in Caracas weren't labeled," points out Carolina Pedrique, who, in partnership with her father, Pedro Pedrique, owns the tiny cafe. "Only the street corners had these names and signs." As proof, she gestures towards the framed newsprint photographs of downtown Caracas, circa 1935, hanging near the entrance.
Crocheted lace curtains across the front glass, daisy-printed blue tablecloths and an old-fashioned bentwood hat rack complete the illusion of a dainty dollhouse. When entering the doorway, I have a fleeting impulse to duck, Alice-like.
The Pedrique family moved from Venezuela to Houston almost four years ago, and its members have experienced varying degrees of homesickness ever since. Three months ago, they opened Cafe Caracas, where they serve the foods they remember with such nostalgia.
"We miss a lot of things from home, and we want to share these good things about Venezuela with Americans," says Carolina. "Venezuela is more than the oil, corruption and politics that Americans hear about. We wanted to open a little window into our culture."
The short menu changes daily at the cafe and so is pragmatically hand-printed on a write-on, wipe-off laminated card. Recently they've begun offering an English version, for which I'm thankful; on my first visit I found so many unfamiliar regional words on the Spanish edition that I had to beg Carolina's little sister Nellie for help in translating. Jojoto refers to sweet corn, for example, and auyama is a kind of squash; gallina means chicken. "Actually, it means hen," Carolina clarifies. "My grandmother always said to use a hen for cooking because it's more flavorful."
I don't know where Carolina might be getting the hens, but her ensalada de gallina ($6.95) is as tasty as promised. It's a hearty, colorful mix of tender chicken, chunks of potato, green peas and pimientos, sparked with crisp bits of apple and lightly held together with a homemade mayonnaise dressing. With each order of chicken or tuna salad comes a cup of soup chosen from the daily roster, so the result is a satisfyingly full lunch.
So far, my favorite soup is the cream of squash, or auyama ($2.95 cup, $3.95 bowl), that despite its name is made without cream. "The auyama squash we eat in Venezuela looks like a small pumpkin that you have here," says Carolina. "We tried a lot of different American squashes to get the same flavor. Pumpkins turned out to be too sweet, and yellow squashes didn't taste the same." What she finally hit upon was butternut squash, and so the resulting soup is a brilliant Van Gogh yellow-orange. It's based on a rich chicken stock, and the puree of squash is subtly touched with hints of onions and leeks. The lentil soup (also $2.95 cup, $3.95 bowl) is as dark and earthy as the squash soup is light. Based on beef broth, it's a thick country stew of lentils, celery and onions.
In keeping with the tearoom ambiance, crepes and quiches make frequent appearances in the menu rotation, complemented by a salad of spiky dark greens with light vinaigrette. I'm not a fan of either crepes or quiche and so was surprised to discover that I love the corn crepes called cachapas ($6.95). The crepes are perfectly thin and delicate, wrapped around a filling of corn kernels in a creamy cheese sauce. It's the sauce that captured my attention: It's smooth and rich, but with an appealing tang that I couldn't quite place. Nellie could only tell me that it combines three different cheeses, so after racking my brain trying to figure out which three, I finally asked Carolina. "Oh, it's Gouda and Parmesan and a Venezuelan queso blanco," she said, with a laugh. "But the real secret is that Venezuelan cheese." No kidding.
I noticed that many of the Venezuelan customers at Cafe Caracas order an iced, tawny brown drink a shade or two lighter than tea, and I asked Nellie about it. "It's like lemonade but with a lot of brown sugar," she explained. "It's wonderful; you'll really like it." The aqua de panela ($1.25) is made with the dark brown sugar that the caraquenos call panela, better known here as piloncillo. I really did like it, although one of my friends made a horrible face when he tasted it. It reminds me of Mississippi's toothache-sweet "sweet tea"; I think Southerners will go for it.
Ditto for the arepas ($2), white cornmeal patties pan-fried in butter, and a dead ringer for Southern grits. These dense, domed patties of masa are about the size of your palm, crisp from the skillet on the outside and chewy soft within; often they are served stuffed with meat or vegetables or topped with cheese, but here they are served plain. Arepas are a treasured treat in Venezuela and neighboring Colombia, but I don't understand their appeal. (Carolina will probably be horrified to find out that I took a bag of her arepas home with me and doctored them up with picante sauce and Monterey Jack cheese.) I felt on more familiar ground with the other side dishes, including firm, fried ripe plantains ($2) and black beans ($2).
In addition to the lighter luncheon fare, Cafe Caracas offers a daily special hot plate. So far I've tried asado negro ($7.95) and a baked chicken with mushroom sauce ($7.95). I preferred the asado negro, which is browned beef in a slightly sweet, dark, almost black, sauce. The blander chicken dish just didn't work: The breast seemed dry, the mushrooms rubbery. A breadbasket inexplicably filled with dry Wonder Bread-style toast points accompanies the daily specials. I did much better with the dessert tray, which generally includes flan, tres leches and a delicious sort of chewy coconut cheesecake ($4.25) topped with lightly browned meringue, easily big enough for two.
Just recently, the cafe has begun an à la carte Sunday brunch, featuring arepas, scrambled eggs with tomatoes and peppers, asado negro, fried plantains and black beans. "Believe it or not, that's a typical Sunday breakfast in Caracas," says Carolina. "The families gather together very casually and enjoy a big meal."
The Pedrique family plans more improvements in the near future, such as a case to display Venezuelan candies and sodas. For now, their collection of Venezuelan music CDs is stacked behind the minuscule hostess's podium, just past the rack of glossy brochures for Venezuelan beaches and rain forests, Caracas city maps and other tourist publications. Like the earnest ambassadors they are, the Pedrique sisters often press these upon American visitors. Nellie showed me a well-thumbed picture guide of Margarita Island to illustrate her recent disappointment with Galveston's beach. "You see how pretty our beaches are?" she pleaded. "They are not the same at all as here. You must go there, you will love it." Until I make it, though, I'll be content with the glimpse through Carolina's window.
Got a hot restaurant tip or an interesting piece of food news? E-mail Margaret Briggs at firstname.lastname@example.org.
8383 Westheimer, Suite 107
Ensalada de gallina: $6.95
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Cream of squash soup: $2.95 cup, $3.95 bowl
Aqua de panela: $1.25
Coconut cheesecake: $4.25