Venezuelan Arepas at “El Budare” Bordeaux

A pint-sized Venezuelan joint named El Budare has opened its doors this week in my neighborhood and I couldn’t be happier about it. We met the very nice couple – Paula from Venezuela and French-Réunionese Florian – when we stuck our noses in to check the menu last weekend, as they were busy setting up. Four days later, I was happily waving a large take-out bag on the way home to chow down on their arepas. I’ve been back once since then, which I would argue qualifies me as a regular. Their food is copious, full of flavor and priced just right.

The menu is short and sweet, featuring two snacks: their tequeños and empanadas, both perfect with a cold bottle of Polar beer from Venezuela. Their speciality is the arepa, which is a kind of grilled maize dough pocket stuffed with various ingredients: ham & cheese, slow-cooked beef, grilled chicken or tuna, avocado, black beans or plantain. These ingredients are also re-conceived as the all-popular Bordeaux lunch staple “the mixed bowl,” with white rice serving as a blank canvas. There’s a choice of three different sauces: salsa picante, salsa de ajo and guasacaca with avocado. Dessert is Tres Leches, a funky exotic fruit “tiramisu” or plantain slathered in chocolate sauce. And they also offer a selection of bright fruit smoothies, made in house.

Tequeños are a truly beloved Venezuelan snack food, serving roughly the same purpose as mozzarella sticks in the US. A light and airy bread dough is wrapped around a stick of easy-melting queso blanco and deep-fried to a nice golden color. As any fried food, the quality here depends entirely on texture, with an excessively greasy, soggy dough signifying the downfall of the dish. This didn’t happen here. The bread coat was a perfect golden-brown, crispy and flaky on the exterior, with a thin layer of breadiness before hitting the core of oozing, gooey white cheese. My only regret here was assuming that the snack came with a sauce and so not ordering one, as I imagine these batons are ideal for dipping. 

Arepas (or arepitas, as they are affectionately known) bring back so many memories for me. I remember waking up late on weekend mornings in Buenos Aires to the smell of my Colombian roommate’s sizzling cornmeal cakes. We’d slather them with butter and top them with scrambled egg and cheese, gnoshing on them in our pijamas while watching something terrible on TV. These arepitas would diligently soak up whatever poison was still left in us from the night before and knock us firmly out for the perfect weekend morning nap. On a trip to Medellin with a friend, I once tried an arepa that was stuffed with cheese, oozing through the thin, crunchy cornmeal crust when bitten into.

From what I’ve gathered, Colombians are a bit more purist when it comes to their arepas, while Venezuelans stuff theirs with all kings of stuff. To accomodate the onslaught of delicious, juicy fillings, Venezuelan arepas also tend to be a bit thicker, with more body. “El budare” is actually the name of the traditional Venezuelan cast iron or clay cooking plate used to toast arepas or cachapas (a thinner corn cake).

The first El Budare arepa rellena I tried was their “Pabellón Criollo,” the Venezuelan national dish in arepita form. This comes with carne mechada, which is tender and juicy slow-cooked beef, stewed with garlic, red pepper and plenty of paprika and pulled apart to form ribbons of delicious and flavorful meat. A generous portion of this is stuffed into the cornmeal pocket, along with some hearty black beans and wonderfully sticky, sweet and plump wedges of plantain. These three ingredients together create a heart-warming symphony on the palate, with the caramelized, naughty dulzor of the plantain rounding out the savory, paprika-scented beef. A sprinkling of fresh cilantro adds its clean, soapy flavor. The arepa itself is awesome, with sexy patches of caramelized golden char gracing the exterior, while the inside is crumbly and moist, offering the pleasantly gritty texture of freshly ground corn meal.

For the carne machada purist, El Budare also offers an arepa stuffed with just this mouthwateringly flavorful meat, a chance to revel in the artistry of the recipe. The beef is laced with tender bits of red bell pepper and onion, dripping with savory, bright red meat juice. A messy arepa, but a satisfying one. Absolutely no additional sauce needed here.

By far my favorite arepa so far (and I will be trying them all, over the next few weeks) is their Reina Pepiada. This recipe, which translates to something like “Curvacious Queen,” was originally named in honor of the beautiful Miss Susana Duijm, the first Venezuelan to be crowned Miss World in 1955. The filling is essentially a warm chicken salad, made with a base of mashed avocado, mayonnaise, garlic, plenty of lemon juice and cilantro. Normally, shredded chicken breast is mixed with this base and then stuffed, along with fresh chunks of avocado, into the arepa.

I avoided ordering this arepa the first time around in fear of the chicken being dry, imagining once-frozen but reheated, factory-chopped “chunks” of carboard-flavored chicken breast rehydrated with mayonnaise. But what I got was entirely different. I was surprised to find that the filling was actually made of dark meat chicken, smooth and unevenly sized lumps of flesh clearly pulled recently and by hand off a whole roasted chicken. These bits of meat were juicy, moist and wonderfully flavorful, then brought to a whole new level by the ripe avocado and piquant cream base. Paula recommended I try the salsa de ajo with this one. The delicious sauce of garlic and citrus added a layer of fresh acidity to cut the creaminess of the mayo in the filling (which was, by no means, excessive to begin with). An absolutely wonderful lunch, hearty yet magically light.

On my first visit to El Budare, there was already a crowd of hungry Bordelais waiting outside and the kitchen seemed overrun with orders. Paula let me know, before charging me, that my order would take roughly 20 minutes, which I happily accepted as the sun was shining and I had a Podcast to keep me entertained. After exactly 20 minutes of waiting, she handed me my order and told me she had thrown in a complimentary dessert to make up for the wait that I had willingly accepted. An entirely unnecessary, genuinely kind gesture, the kind to which I have grown so unaccustomed living in France.

The dessert turned out to be their home-made Tres Leches, a fluffy sponge cake soaked in evaporated milk, heavy cream and condensed milk (whence, “three milk”) and served with a sticky sweet merengue pipetted on, dusted with cinnamon. A delicious dessert that I didn’t even know I wanted.

As a North-American who grew up surrounded by wonderful Colombian, Peruvian, Bolivian, El Salvadorean and Venezuelan restaurants at my fingertips, I have missed so much the flavors of these countries in France. I cannot even imagined how thrilled the small population of Latino expats in Bordeaux must be to taste such a genuine, home-made version of their favorite foods. I’m looking forward to trying absolutely everything at El Budare as I add it to my weekly rotation, and I wish them lots of luck (though, by the looks of it, they will certainly not need it).

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