Strictly speaking, the arepa is not necessary to sustain life, but after visiting Colombia you might think otherwise. In their native land, these cornmeal cakes turn up everywhere, from breakfast tables to street food stalls to breadbaskets at upscale steakhouses.
They're also all over the menu at Mais Arepas, a new outpost for casual Colombian cooking, where arepas are turned into unique South American sandwiches. Thick, moist and crisped and glistening from the griddle, these arepas taste like a cross between cornbread and a tortilla, and on the plate they resemble pita sandwiches with their components bursting forth.
A combination of mashed avocado and fat hunks of sweet, sticky fried plantain top a number of these sandwich varieties. For one called carnicera, the kitchen adds appropriately chewy skirt steak and a mild puree of cranberry beans (named for their color, not their flavor, which is similar to red beans). Plump shrimp and citrusy slaw fill the marinera arepa, and eggs, ham and salsa turn the huevona into a breakfast-for-lunch (or dinner) option. The Argentine-influenced chori arepa features chunks of red, righteously greasy chorizo and wads of mozzarella, and an arepa with fried oysters, romaine and remoulade is a frequent special.
Mais Arepas was opened late last year by David Mantilla, a former partner in the Uptown Colombian restaurant Baru Bistro & Tapas. This new place has the scale and warmth of a family-run restaurant, though the look is more stylish than many casual Latin American eateries. The decor includes earthy patterns and Andean folk art, tropical colors and fresh flowers. There's beer and a short list of moderately priced wines features mostly South American bottles.
The arepas fixation limits the menu to a certain sameness, though it is possible to build a meal without them. The yellow cornmeal empanadas are excellent with beef and even better with mushrooms and peppers. Steak skewers bring the smokiness of the grill to the table, and an array of garlicky salsas add zest without much heat.
Colombian food isn't a cuisine known for tremendous spice or zest, but I wanted more citrus kick from the ceviche, which resembled a tropical shrimp salad. But the beautifully presented ajiaco, an entree-size chicken soup, proved surprisingly flavorful, with its briny zap of capers and dollops of cream in its thick potato broth.
To go for it all, order the bandeja paisa. It's like a single-serving buffet of chorizo, skirt steak, plantains, cranberry beans, a fried egg and a mini arepa all vying for room on a carved wooden platter, while a thick chicharron arches above like a rainbow of fried pork fat. It's decadent but also appropriate for this place. Arepas may be the stuff of life in Colombian cuisine, but meat brings the sizzle.