Viva Las Arepas—formerly the food stand known as I [HEART] Arepas—sits just north of the Stratosphere on Las Vegas Boulevard. Why the change? Someone else trademarked the original name.
The new place is a brightly lit, brick-and-mortar restaurant that looks rather like the places you see along Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, where you stop in for a Cuban sandwich and a batido, a tropical fruit milkshake. Except that what you get here is the exotic cuisine of Venezuela, a hitherto undiscovered country in the Downtown grid.
Felix Arellano, a Caracas native who once worked at Piero Selvaggio Valentino, has tropical fruit drinks on his menu here, too, but you’ll have to go across the street for that Cuban sandwich, to Havana Café or El Rincon Criollo. This stretch of the Strip has lots of Latino influence, alongside the Thai joints and wedding chapels. It’s yet another piece of evidence that we are becoming as ethnically diverse as any major market city.
When you enter, you’ll see colorful murals, as well as spray coolers filled with exotic drinks such as passion fruit, or even soursop (guanabana in Spanish), by the front counter. But the specialty here is the arepa, fat, stuffed corn cakes that are almost a way of life in Caribbean South America, buoyed up by irresistible meats cooked on the parilla, or wood-fired grill.
So what is an arepa? It’s basically a cornmeal cake that can be steamed, fried or grilled, as it is here. Picture a hamburger bun in wax paper and then substitute the arepa, and that’s what you’re getting. Almost all the arepas get savory fillings. It’s the ultimate street food.
Arepas, which range from $4-$6, are wickedly filling. The most popular one is probably carne asada, pounded, marinated rib eye finished on hickory and charcoal, as are all the meats here. I love the cold arepa called reina pepiada, a minced chicken filling redolent of garlic and cilantro.
There are a dozen or so other options. Arepa perico is ham, egg and cheese served hot, a sort of South American Egg McMuffin. The garlic shrimp arepa is also heart-stoppingly delicious, and even better when doused with guasacaca, an herb-infused sauce based on mayonnaise with a lingering, indefinable flavor.
Felix also does empanadas and pastelitos, snack turnovers with savory fillings. I love his ground meat and rice pastelito, but the coconut and cheese is interesting, too, and a guava and cheese empanada will instantly transport you to the tropics.
I’m still dreaming about the meats—sausages, carne asada, pork ribs on the bone and amazing wood-fired grilled chicken, the best in the city. Just $14.99 gets you a whole chicken, all blackened skin and juicy meat, with two sides, plenty for two people to share. And the wood-fired mixed grill—all the above meats plus sausages—will easily serve three.
Those sides include yuca frita (fried pieces of the starchy cassava root), french fries (if you insist) or my choice, Felix’s delicious rice and vegetable medley with lots of corn, beans, carrots and greens cooked into the rice.
Viva Las Arepas marinates all its meats overnight before finishing them on the wood grill. They are cooked perfectly and seasoned just right. Can we extend the name to I [HEART] Viva Las Arepas without infringing on the trademark? I quite hope so.