Our immigrant neighbors have taught us to love tacos. They’ve introduced us to gorditas, and roti, chapatis and naan, bao and banh mi and pitas and lavash and much, much more; and for all these carb-loaded delights we are much in their debt.
Now say hello to the Venezuelan arepa, yet another appealing way to enclose something good to eat within a tasty wrapper, a hand-held treat that long pre-dates the invention of Lord John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich.
Call for an “Ah-ray-puh” in Americanized English of “Aaah-day-pah” if you want to give it a go in Spanish. Either way, you’ll get a filling and delicious lunch at Nahyla’s, the fetching new eatery in Middletown that is introducing Louisville to its first tastes of Venezuelan cuisine.
“It’s like an English muffin,” explained Enzo, our charming and helpful server and co-owner. Well, yeah, if we visualize a small but hearty English muffin made of white corn meal, something like a firm grits cake, split partway through and opened wide to load up with hearty fillings. This is ancient cuisine, tracing its roots back to the corn agriculture of Venezuela and Colombia long before the Europeans came.
Open since November in the renovated shopping-center storefront that had previously housed the short-lived pan-Caribbean Zialala Cafe, Nahyla’s is attractive and well-kept, with abstract fabric art on off-white walls, attractive, sturdy wooden tables and chairs, and an oversize red, blue-and-yellow flag of Venezuela hanging in the back of the room.
The bilingual main menu features nine filled arepas, ranging in price from $6.99 (for granos con queso blanco, black beans with white cheese) to $9.99 (for pabellon, the iconic Venezuelan shredded beef). Two larger dinner entrees, pabellon criollo (shredded beef with beans and rice, a fried egg and plantains) and asado negro (dark-roasted eye of round) are both $14.99. Entree chicken and pork specials are added daily at dinner, and about a dozen appetizers, soups and salads are all under $7.
On one of our visits we were surprised with complimentary bowls of intense, savory clear chicken soup loaded with chicken bits, a short round of corn from the cob, and soft arepa-dough dumplings.
The kitchen handles frying with exceptional skill: Don’t pass on tequeños ($6.85), mozzarella sticks rolled in pastry dough and deep-fried crisp and utterly grease-free, with an appetizing, gently spicy green sauce for dipping; fried arepitas ($6.85), a half-dozen shattering-crisp and golden-brown silver-dollar-size arepa rounds with a tangy cream cheese dip; and crisp fried yuca sticks ($5.50) so good that you’ll never go back to french fries again.
There’s no bar, but I loved a tall glass of papelón com limón ($3), a delicious blend of fresh lemonade and molasses-scented sugar-cane juice.
A very generously portioned pabellon arepa ($9.99) was piled high with falling-apart shreds of beef long-simmered with green and red peppers, onions and garlic and spices; deliciously smoky black beans, and a ration of funky queso blanco.
More of those perfect, toothsome black beans and cheese filled a granos con queso blanco arepa ($6.99); and a breakfast arepa filled with eggs, cheese and optional sausage would make a great breakfast at any time of day.
Two filling lunches for two came to $36.81 and $23.68, plus 20-percent tips. We also added a Venezuelan desert to take home, quesillo, ($7.50), a creamy, rich Venezuelan dessert that brings together cheesecake and flan.
Celebrating our immigrant neighbors
This wraps up our month, in which I have joined with a few other Louisville food writers, of celebrating some of the immigrant chefs and restaurateurs who bring us so much culinary joy. It has been a special pleasure to view Louisville’s Mayan Cafe, Guaca Mole, and now Nahyla’s, through the lens of cultural gifts that chefs from around the world bring us.
But don’t stop now! Louisville is richly gifted with restaurants representing a world of culinary cultures. Spend a little time discovering them, and you won’t be sorry. Here are just a few of my favorites that are well worth your attention, based on my recommendations over the past 18 months:
3701 Lexington Road
Bawerchi (Indian Muslim)
1613 Bardstown Road
4123 Oechsli Ave.
Con Huevos (Mexico)
2339 Frankfort Ave.
Funmi’s Café (Nigeria)
3028 Bardstown Road
Havana Rumba (Cuba)
4115 Oechsli Ave.
La Guanaquita (Central America)
4231 Taylor Blvd.
Noosh Nosh (Iranian owner)
4816 Brownsboro Center
Oriental House (China)
4302 Shelbyville Road
Rice Bowl (Korea)
3114 Grant Line Road
New Albany, Ind.
Roots/Heart & Soy (Asian, Vietnamese owner)
1216 Bardstown Road
Safari Grill (East Africa)
328 W. Woodlawn Ave.
131 W. Market St.
Taj Palace (India)
2929 Goose Creek Road
A Taste of Thai (Thailand)
6549 W. Highway 22
Thai Cafe (Thailand)
2226 Holiday Manor Shopping Center
Time 4 Thai (Thailand)
2206 Frankfort Ave.