Jose Rodriguez felt the usual pangs of the foreign-exchange student when he arrived in tiny Decatur, Michigan, for a year of high school a decade ago. The little town just southeast of Kalamazoo offered enough opportunities for trying exotic foods like pasta and burgers. But there were no arepas, the fat, griddled corn cakes he'd eaten nearly every day for most of his life.
There's debate over where arepas come from—Venezuela, Rodriguez's home, and Colombia are the prime contenders—but though there are regional differences, you can find similar things all over Latin America (e.g., El Salvador's pupusas or Mexico's gorditas). Pudgy patties hand-formed from dough made of cornmeal, water, and salt, they're eaten solo, plain and unadorned, or as accompaniment to other foods. Split open and stuffed with whatever's on hand, they become arepas rellenas.
Rodriguez went ten long arepaless months before he returned to Maturin, in the northeastern part of the country, where his family ran a pharmacy and a clothing store. But in 2000, when he returned to the States to attend college at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, he came with a headful of his mother's arepa-stuffing recipes and found a Mexican grocery where he could buy the masa de harina needed to make the dough. As a consequence, he was put on arepa rellena duty when his friends gathered to hang out.
After graduating, he stayed in Michigan, where in late 2008 he married a local. He worked in administration for a private aviation company until last year, but when the industry contracted, he and his wife, Laura, moved to Chicago, where she has a brother. He and his parents—who now live on the Caribbean island of Margarita—started looking into opening a restaurant here. They settled on a space on the brick-cobbled section of Oak Park's Marion Street, redecorating it to approximate a colonial Venezuelan home, with a front porch, vaulted ceilings, and traditional handicrafts and paintings on the walls.
Rodriguez's mother, Luzmila, flew up to school the staff on her recipes—including fillings for arepa rellenas and empanadas as well as other little bites like tostones, fried yuca, and boliquesos, lightly sweet balls of deep-fried cornmeal dough, similar to hush puppies but with interiors of partly molten Venezuelan queso fresco and semiduro, a mild, medium-hard cheese. A handful of main plates and juices—including the tooth-cracking papelon con limon, made from sweet lime and piloncillo, a dark brown unrefined sugar—round out the menu.
But it's the arepas rellenas—in 19 varieties—that are its heart, most with evocative names such as La Nuestra ("Ours"), stuffed with pabelon, the Venezuelan national dish of shredded beef, black beans, sweet plantains, and cheese. El Domino is named for the contrasting colors of black beans and crumbled white cheese, the chicken-salad-and-avocado Reina Pepiada ("Voluptuous Queen") for the Venezuelan winner of the 1955 Miss World pageant, Susana Duijm. An arepa burger, with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and "special sauce," is dubbed La Musiua, slang for "Foreigner."
The La Peluda ("the Hairy") stuffed with shredded cheese, and its chicken variant, La Catira ("the Blondie"), both put up a fair amount of dental resistance, which put them at the opposite end of the textural spectrum from El Perico ("the Parrot"), an egg-vegetable-cheese scramble. One constant across the lineup is the crispy-chewy exterior of the arepas themselves, which gives way to a subdermal fluffiness that envelops and stabilizes the fillings.
The menu has one controversial item: La Margariteña, named for Jose's parents' island home, where it's a standard. It's stuffed with the minced meat of the overfished silky shark, or cazon.
The arepas run between $3.65 and $4.95, and Rodriguez says some customers were put off by the prices. But the corn cakes are stuffed to bulging, and accompanied by house-made avocado or red-pepper sauce; two make for more than a meal once the masa starts to settle in the belly.
"It's almost a midwestern mentality: you know, your eyes are bigger than your stomach," says Rodriguez. "Some people don't realize sometimes you get full with just one arepa."