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La Latina: Review

La Latina, photo by lee kleinArepa at La Latina, photo by lee kleinLa Latina counter, photo by lee kleinPernil at La Latina, photo by lee klein

Venezuela is 1,224 miles from Peru, but there’s an even greater distance between the two Latin American countries when it comes to prominence of national cuisine. Peruvian food is soaring in popularity; Venezuelan fare is either translated to meaning arepas or met with a blank stare. Carlos Matheus and Julie Rico, the Venezuelan owners of La Latina, have been trying to change all that since they opened shop three years ago on NE Second Avenue (just east of  the Shops at Midtown, across the street from the train tracks).

The small, homespun, vibrantly colored arepera looks like a hallucinogenic interpretation of abuelita’s dining room – but the food resembles more the type of snacks you might grab from a roadside stand in Caracas. Indeed, La Latina offers just about all of Venezuela’s most popular munchies, starting with the namesake arepa.

Arepa at La Latina, photo by lee klein

For the uninitiated, arepa is a dense, thick patty of ground maize (or corn flour), water, and salt – mildly crunchy on the outside, tender within. These are then split in half and used as sandwich bread, fillings usually being either plain cheese, or cheese with accompaniments. The version here proffers the two traditional Venezuelan cheeses most commonly used in arepas: queso de mano and queso guayanés.

The former is a soft white cheese often compared to mozzarella. I tried my white-corn arepa with the guayanés, a semi-hard, unripened cheese made in southeast Venezuela from partly skimmed cow's milk. It came stuffed to the max, and tasted great; my one complaint is that the arepa should have been warmer.

Other arepa renditions ($5.50 to $6.50) include La Latina, stuffed with bacon, cheese and avocado; La Rumbera, with pork and chese; Reina Pepiada, a cilantro-infused chicken salad with avocado; and my recommendation, the arepa packed with cheese and sweet plantains. The contrast of sweet and salty flavors elevates it above the others.

There are vegan arepas as well: black beans with sweet plantains, and black beans with avocado. And since corn flour contains no gluten, all arepas are gluten free.

Pernil platter at La Latina, photo by lee klein

The concise menu is split into four categories: arepas (the largest group); empanadas; platters; and bites. Among the last are boliarepitás, small spheres of arepa dough fried and stuffed with melted nata (similar to cream cheese). Other selections are tequeños, which are the Venezuelan version of mozzerella sticks, but with queso de mano and a crunchier shell; and plantain cups filled with choice of protein. All go for $5.95.

Another small bite option is the Venezuelan version of guacamole, called guasacaca. It’s consistency is thinner than guac, it's purpose to be used as a sauce for the arepas and empanadas. 

The arepas here are not the Colombian variety of bright yellow corn patties oozing with melted cheese that one often sees around Miami. If that’s what you’re looking for, try the cachapa, a sizeable sweet corn pancake filled with cheese (queso de mano), griddled, and finished with a slathering of butter ($7.95). If I was only stopping in at La Latina for one item, the cachapa is what I’d get.

Our chicken empanada arrived hot (and a bit greasy) from the fryer, shredded meat inside the soft, tender corn crust aggressively seasoned with cumin, garlic, thyme, tomato, and I’m not sure what else ($3.75). No need for additional flavor in this bite, but there are squeeze bottles of mayonnaise-based cilantro sauce, jalapeno sauce, and a potent and delicious garlic sauce on every table in case you want to turn your comestible into an edible Jackson Pollock.

Counter at La Latina, photo by lee klein

Main course platters feature only a few picks. We tried the pernil, which was served with impeccably cooked white rice and sweet plantains. The shredded pork meat was juicy and robustly marinated in sour orange juice, but it ultimately proved overly salty – speaking of which, you might want to try the homemade papelón con limón, a refreshing Venezuelan lemonade named after the raw hardened sugar cane juice it’s sweetened with. Cerveza Polar, a light Pilsener-type beer from Venezuela, is also on hand.

There’s a whole lot to like about La Latina, not the least of which is pricing – the range is $3.25 to $6.50 for all but the platters, which run $7.95 to $9.55. The food is prepared fresh, and meats are antibiotic-and-hormone free. There’s a Happy Hour every day from 5pm to 8pm, and the restaurant stays open until 5 am on Fridays and Saturdays. Parking can be difficult, but if you live or work close by they’ll deliver.

So now when someone asks you what you know about Venezuelan food, you can answer: “La Latina.”

3509 NE 2nd Avenue, Miami; 305-571-9655