Border Crossing


Yes, I know there’s a war going on, but I’m a stressed-out American who still needs to take a vacation, and I don’t mean three days at Disney World. My travel agent tells me that if I do venture outside the United States, it may not be the best time to be talking Turkey — or passing mis pocas vacaciones in Venezuela. Life has not been, shall we say, muy feliz in Caracas of late: General strikes have crippled the country’s oil industry, leftist President Hugo Chavez is at the center of intense political controversy, the currency has lost over a quarter of its value, and the pharmacies and hospitals are nearly out of medicine and supplies.

So maybe I won’t go there this year. But I can at least sample Venezuela’s cuisine just by crossing the Missouri border and visiting Wyandotte County. Over in Kansas City, Kansas, restaurateur José Garcia — a native of Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city — is always in good spirits. After nearly two decades working for local restaurants (his lengthy résumé ranges from oyster shucker at the old downtown Lobster Pot to chef at the Grille on Broadway), Garcia opened his own little joint, Café Venezuela, five months ago. Business has been good.

Romance brought 43-year-old Garcia to Kansas City, Kansas, from Mississippi (where he was attending college) twenty years ago. “I fell in love with a girl from Peru and followed her here,” he says. “It didn’t work out, but I stayed anyway.” Along the way, Garcia has worked in dozens of restaurants, married Caracas-born Eva, and fathered three children

The move from employee to entrepreneur wasn’t a particularly complicated transition. One afternoon last year, Garcia stopped in for a cup of espresso at the tiny diner at 719 Central that housed his friend Jorge Manan’s Cuban Corner Café. Manan had already negotiated to move his business from the narrow ten-stool diner (which had opened as the Neighborhood Grill in the 1950s) to a long-vacant convenience store on the other side of the street.

“Jorge said to me, ‘I think you should take this over and serve Venezuelan food,'” explains Garcia. “It was a very good idea, you know, because I could start business with very little money. In fact, I didn’t even buy a new sign. I just took his old sign down, painted it over and then painted my own sign.”

Garcia hasn’t done much to the décor of the old diner, either. He hasn’t put up any religious icons — which had been an integral part of the Cuban Corner Café’s design motif — but he did tack the blue, red and yellow Venezuelan flag to one of the paneled walls, along with a map of his native country, a couple of T-shirts boasting the restaurant’s logo, and two or three empty burlap coffee bags. A TV (tuned to American soap operas during weekday lunch shifts) is still perched on top of a cooler filled with soft drinks, and a portable radio on the back counter is tuned to a local Hispanic music station.

As combination manager-server-busboy, Garcia oversees the counter traffic himself (with the help of a friend on weekend nights) and has two employees cooking in the kitchen. In such close quarters, the hustle and bustle can be comical from the vantage point of a revolving stool. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, pots, plates and God only knows what else repeatedly crashed to the kitchen floor; Garcia would cringe theatrically while customers stared in the direction of the kitchen for a half-second before they shrugged and continued eating.


As much as I loved the cuisine at the old Cuban Corner, my forays there were few because the fare was so heavy and greasy. The culinary style is very similar at Kansas City’s only Venezuelan venue: Fried empanadas (meat pies), thick sandwiches served in red plastic-mesh baskets, and tropical fruit juices are among the limited choices on the menu, which consists of a double-sided color photocopy tucked into a clear plastic sleeve. Garcia and his kitchen staff also cook four entrées and five variations of stuffed corn cakes. Every so often they offer specials, like paella or the labor-intensive Venezuelan tamales made with pork and beef steamed in fresh banana leaves. On weekends, Garcia always tries to offer oxtail soup and a Venezuelan version of menudo called sopa de mondongo, made with beef tripe; plantains; yuca; the nutty, earthy malanga root; and garbanzos. None of this food is elegant in style or presentation, but it’s typical Venezuelan street food, the kind you’d eat at home rather than in a formal restaurant dining room.

“Did you say Mandingo soup?” asked my friend Alethea slyly, spooning jade-green tomatillo sauce over a crispy fried plantain during one visit. Garcia chattered on, oblivious to both her teasing and the cultural reference to the worst film of 1975.

Garcia has a lot of big dreams for his little Venezuelan café and fairly bubbles over with ideas. “I’d like to serve Bolivian empanadas,” he says. “And more Colombian dishes.”

Garcia’s menu already boasts two Colombian-inspired entrées. When he can get the ingredients, he prefers creating his Bandeja Paisa with blood sausage and milder Colombian chorizo instead of the spicier Mexican kind. “Venezuelan food is not very spicy or hot,” he says. “If you want it hot, we’ll make it spicy for you. Otherwise, the spices are on the side.”

Garcia’s Bandeja Paisa is a platter heaped with ground beef, avocado, eggs, peppery chorizo, bacon, plantains, rice, and red beans. It should be eaten “a little bit at a time” with freshly grilled corn cakes, Garcia says. The other Colombian supper, Solomo a la Plancha, only sounds exotic on the menu. It translates as grilled sirloin — a fairly tough little slab, in this case — thinly sliced and marinated in bay leaf, olive oil, vinegar, peppercorns, garlic and oregano. It’s grilled quite expertly here and is attractively presented, with sautéed tomatoes and pale-green squares of avocado scattered on top. It’s a slightly chewy steak, but the marinade and accompaniments give it some oomph. It comes with a cup of long-simmered black beans and gorgeously greasy fried green plantain chips. Sweeter chunks of the more ripened fruit arrive soft and custardy under an amber, caramelized crust.

Alethea, a vegan, was mad for both versions of the starchy fried fruit on our lunchtime visit. I preferred the less-sugary chips — nearly as big as saucers — that Garcia makes by slicing the green plantains diagonally, flash-frying them, smashing the slices into thin patties, freezing them, then later defrosting and refrying the circles until they’re hot and crisp. The chips are tasty enough eaten nude, but they’re even better topped with guasacaca, a mojito-style sauce of chilies, coriander, tomatoes, onion and avocados. She was equally passionate about the meatless black beans (simmered in garlic, bell peppers and paprika) and a veggie sandwich heaped with a grilled portabella mushroom, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, and sprouts on focaccia.

You wouldn’t think a Venezuelan diner would be so vegan-friendly, and at first Alethea wasn’t sure, particularly when she watched Garcia carry a meaty, oversized sandwich to a customer on the other side of the dining room. On Garcia’s menu, this Dagwood double-decker is called a “Typical Venezuelan Cheeseburger,” though there’s no burger on this “Caracan Chop,” only a boneless pork chop, pastrami, ham, smoked sausage, white cheese, egg, and crumbled potato chips.


But Alethea was game to sample almost everything else, including an empty puff of griddle-hot arepas, or fried corn cakes. She tried tarting them up with dollops of fragrant tomato-jalapeño-and-garlic sauce, but sadly, the best arepas are not for the vegan set.

Split open and generously stuffed with meat, at Café Venezuela, the coarsely ground corn cakes look fragile but serve as a solid foundation for a thick sandwich, be it shredded beef or melted cheese or Garcia’s version of chicken salad, reina pipiada, made with chopped chicken breast, mayonnaise and avocado.

“This is what we call fast food in Venezuela,” Garcia said as he placed two plastic baskets in front of me, one containing delicately seasoned beef-filled arepas, the other a crusty empanada — a golden half-moon pastry filled with gooey white, salty Panela cheese. I ate them all too quickly and followed them with a hefty sandwich of pernil — slices of tender roasted pork — heaped on a yeasty bun with creamy cole slaw and crumbled potato chips. I washed that down with a plastic tumbler of sweet, foamy juice made from tart guanabana pulp, ice, and lots and lots of sugar.

“But you will try dessert?” suggested Garcia as I pushed away my empty plastic baskets. Garcia’s wife, Eva, makes the flín, he said, and his sister-in-law, Gladys, bakes the Three Milk Cake (available only on weekends). But my stomach was full and my head spinning by this point, and I didn’t have the energy to pick up a fork, let alone use one. After such a heavy lunch, I couldn’t even think of returning to work, opting instead to go home for a serious siesta. I woke up ten hours later with a guanabana hangover, if there is such a thing. A trip to the Venezuelan Café makes for a satisfying escapade. But I still need a vacation.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews