Each time another dish arrived at the table, my friend had the same reaction, something along the lines of, “I can’t wait to taste that.”
We were dining at Hola Arepa, the latest food- truck-goes-brick-and-mortar iteration, and my response was almost always, “Me, too.”
I wasn’t surprised. From that first day four summers ago that co-owners Christina Nguyen and Birk Grudem parked their bright green vehicle on Marquette Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, they were obviously onto something special.
They quickly built a rabid following, and why not? They were trafficking in the offbeat — seriously, arepa wasn’t exactly tripping off Twin Citians’ tongues until the engaged-to-be-married couple came along — and their commitment to quality, originality and value were readily apparent. If a Food Truck 101 course is being taught somewhere, surely the Hola Arepa story will become a chapter in the class’ textbook.
What makes the restaurant version of the mobile operation such a pleasure is that Nguyen and Grudem are admirably adept at capitalizing on their strengths while simultaneously avoiding the temptations of going too big too soon.
Instead, they’ve doubled the number of arepas (I’ll get to their particulars in a moment) to nine selections, then added a handful of shareable snacks, most of which don’t stray too far from the kitchen’s limited comfort zone.
First, arepas. Picture a plus-size English muffin, made from Venezuelan boiled corn flour and water. The dough is formed into patties, which are griddled on both sides to get them nicely crispy and browned. Grudem and Nguyen bake them for a short time to finish the dough and prevent them from tasting too fried food-ish, then split them and fill them, to two-fisted sloppiness, with a bevy of ingredients.
The basic foundations, animal protein-wise, include a deliriously delicious, fall-apart pork shoulder, braised all day in dried chiles, jalapeños and orange; chopped beef chuck, similarly braised and teased with vinegar and tomato accents; and juicy, deeply flavorful chicken that’s brined, steamed and then grilled to order.
On come the embellishments, which include black beans, crunchy pickled cabbage, punchy coarse mustard, cotija cheese, a not-shy chipotle aioli and a creamy mango-yellow pepper-cilantro sauce. That’s just for starters. It’s funny, because as much as I gravitate toward the pork and that finely shredded beef — and especially the adobo-style chicken — I can’t help but be drawn to what’s perhaps the most conventional iteration, which piles on salty ham, Swiss cheese, a juicy tomato, an expertly fried egg and that mango-cilantro sauce. It has quickly become one of my favorite guilty pleasures.
At its core, Hola Arepa is a Latin sandwich shop. But the half-dozen or so small plates propel the restaurant beyond that limited dimension.
I love the croquette-like arepitas, crisply delicate arepa balls filled with chèvre and bits of jalapeño, their heat balanced by a tangy quince paste.
That beef gets great (and semi-fiery) play on pretty plantain tostadas, and that pork pulls double duty as the key ingredient in an inventive textural whirl blending steamed yuca and crispy pork skin. Also admirable are the pretty sweet corn pancakes dressed with mushrooms and a filmy poached egg, A pair of salads are lovely alternatives to the carb-heavy arepas, which are plated with thick-cut yuca fries.
Snacks are first-rate, too, including a luscious guacamole and the city’s most unusual — and strangely addicting — beer nuts, a blend of toothy fried fava beans, a pinto-like Peruvian bean and gigantic corn nuts. Even the salsas radiate obvious culinary prowess.
Oh my gosh, I’ve completely forgotten to rave over the bar’s output. Grudem channels his work at Bradstreet Craftshouse — and then wisely hired Dan Oskey, he of Strip Club and Joia Soda fame — to create a premium cocktail destination, one that emphasizes creativity and value.
A peek inside
In the Minor Miracles department, Grudem and Nguyen squeezed a tight budget to create a casual, fun-loving gathering place out of a former 7-Eleven. The average Twin Citian probably looks upon this kind of worn-out convenience store/ chain-restaurant real estate as an urban blemish, but the couple and many fellow entrepreneurs view it as a low-cost opportunity to transform the Twin Cities’ food scene. For that, we should be grateful.
The truck’s signature color — turquoise, verging on aquamarine, or is it vice versa? — is present, in levels that are just enough to cover all the necessary branding bases, but not so much that you feel as if you’re dining inside a breath mint.
There’s a does-the-job patio, but my favorite seat is the bar’s modest outdoor counter, not only because I’m trying to wring every last minute of sunny warmth out of 2014, but because that line of stools feels as if you’re a part of the dining room’s action without being immersed in its loud — and occasionally punishing — acoustics. In a sweet callback, the bar’s window was created by the same company that built the truck’s service window four years ago.
As for dessert, it’s new to Hola Arepa — the truck was always a sweets-free zone — and pastry chef Heather Kim’s well-crafted work follows the savory menu’s approachable and affordable example.
An ice cream sandwich is a nod to the arepa in both format and content, packing chewy cowboy-style cookies with Fritos and Corn Pops cereal and then laying on the vanilla ice cream. Kim sneaks a hint of Korean red chile pepper powder into a dense, satisfying flourless chocolate cake, then finishes it with cool coconut and mango flourishes. Her crowning achievement is a modernist riff on classic chess pie, its dense butter-sugar content ratcheted to ridiculous heights, its sweetness countered by a crown of tangy sour cream and puckery pineapple.
Like the majority of its Hola Arepa counterparts, it’s inexpensive, gluten-free and not to be missed. Trust me, I never thought I’d never put all three of those attributes in the same sentence, ever.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib