After day-drinking a crispy bottle of Napa Valley rosé in Dolores Park with my travel buddy and an “eclectic” bunch of Canadian musicians on their way to skinny dip in a Calistoga hot spring, I was in the mood for a late afternoon snack. We walked through the Mission and passed a place called El Majahual Restaurant, whose bright, sunshine-yellow walls seemed to exert an inexplicable pull on me. I didn’t fight too hard the urge to go in, as I had learned that the neighborhood was particularly well known for El Salvadorian and Colombian food along with the Mexican(-American) we had tried earlier that day and I had wanted to try these cuisines out anyway.
Even before entering I knew exactly what I wanted: an arepa de queso. Arepas are awesome little fried or grilled corn flour cakes, which can either be stuffed with gooey soft cheese or slathered with it after cooking. I first had them during a trip to Medellin where a friend’s aunt made them for me by hand. I had them again in Buenos Aires where my roommate made them once or twice after her mom had actually sent her corn flour directly from Colombia. I was immediately hooked on the texture – crunchy from the sear on the outside, soft and smooth on the inside but with a grits-y cornmeal playing on the tongue. It has a perfectly clean flavor as it is fried in very little butter and the smokiness of the charred exterior takes over to make it savory. The cheese adds a gooey, moist texture but not enough flavor to overpower the subtle grill taste.
El Majahual turned out to be an awesome family owned and operated joint with two elderly ladies chattering away and cooking in a kitchen visible through a small window where the son or nephew (probably most fluent in English) took orders. He seemed like a really sweet guy, warning us that one arepa was not going to be enough for two but then nodding in agreement when I told him I just wanted my friend to try one. He was very careful bringing it to our table and making sure we had silverware and hot sauce. When I asked him what the major differences were between an El Salvadorian pupusa and a Colombian arepa, he stopped what he was doing and patiently explained the distinction (pupusa from hominy, arepa from corn flour). He did the same when I asked about Colombian vs. Venezuelan arepas (shape and filling). At the end he asked us if we had enjoyed our snack and seemed genuinely happy when I gave him my opinion.
Though a very simple little thing, the arepa was delicious and eating it brought out a reaction that usually only home-made food has the power to solicit. It made me feel warm and cozy inside, as if the mother or grandmother who hand-pressed it (even if not my own) was thinking only of the happiness of the one consuming it. It was expertly prepared and there was plenty of love in there. The masa was brought to the perfect mushy texture and flattened to a satisfying thickness. It was griddle-grilled with a tiny bit of butter until it developed crackling, crunchy grill lines over the snow white surface. When bitten into, the warm, melted cheese on the inside gushed out, filling me with comfort and drawing a big heartfelt smile across my face.
The place has all the traditional Colombian stuff on its menu as well – empanadas, sancocho and the tremendous Bandeja Paisa – and I have full faith that all of it is excellent. Sometimes, though, a girl just needs an arepa on a sunny afternoon.