Co-written by guest authors Noah Kopf and Akhil Rajan
Photos by editor-in-chief Alara Degirmenci
A barely-furnished interior. Roped-off dining areas in the street outside. Customers knocking on the glass doors to pick up orders. Brothers Alejandro and Andres Cordido didn’t think it would look like this when they decided to open a fast-casual arepa restaurant in downtown New Haven. But they didn’t let a pandemic stop them from opening the doors of Somos Arepa, a brand-new joint serving Venezuelan-style arepas.
Yale students are likely familiar with the sweet, dense, yellow-colored Colombian-style arepas from the dueling arepa carts Portobello and Ay Arepa at the base of science hill. But as the Cordido brothers noted, New Haven lacked a Venezuelan-style arepa place — until now. Venezuelan arepas are less sweet than Colombian arepas, and fillings are packed inside instead of piled on top. “They’re the food we grew up eating,” said Andres Cordido, who manages the business operations at Somos Arepa.
On a cozy block of Orange Street south of Chapel, the first thing we noticed was a colorful patio of chairs, tables, and rainbow pavement spilling out into the street. The entire dining area looked like a set for a movie, complete with an outdoor vegetable stand selling pyramids of produce across the street. Through Somos Arepa’s large windows I saw a bright, airy space that looked equally appropriate for an up-and-coming tech start-up as for a fast casual arepa place. As I walked in I was greeted with a hand-drawn blackboard menu and a sign that cheerfully said “Arepas are good for me.”
After we chatted with both owners for a second, Alejandro tossed down 4 arepas on a round black griddle and sliced them open with a flourish. He quickly loaded up each arepa with snugly packed fillings and brought four of their signature arepas to the counter. Alejandro loaded up another tray with a trio of tequeños and arranged six vibrant containers of sauce around them. We took our trays to the outdoor area and dug in.
The first arepa I tried was the Reina Pepiata, packed with a hearty serving of cool, creamy chicken and avocado salad. Dipping it into the chipotle mayo sauce gave it the perfect amount of kick and tanginess, and I only put it down reluctantly to save room for the other arepas.
La Pelua is usually served with the signature carne mechada, but we had it with a pulled chicken instead. The chicken was sweet and soft, with a fruity and peppery blend of seasonings. The simplicity of the meat highlighted the arepa itself, which had a satisfyingly dense texture and a rich corn flavor. I would recommend dipping this arepa into the rosada sauce, which brings a strong acidic punch with some extra citrusy notes. Fans of Cholula sauce won’t want to miss this sauce, which is Somos Arepa’s most straightforward take on hot sauce.
The star of the meaty arepas was the Pabellon, which combines two standout fillings of the carne mechada and the plantains. The carne mechada was delicate and smokey, with a rewarding brisket-y flavor at the end. According to Alejandro the carne mechada is flavored with nothing more than traditional peppers, garlic, and sofrito, though I suspect there was a little magic thrown in as well. On the other hand the plantains were the perfect blend of sweet and savory, with a texture that is pleasingly sticky without being cloying. Together they pack a ton of flavor into a small package, and the Pabellon was the first to disappear entirely from my plate. With the carne mechada I would recommend the ambitiously-straightforward pineapple sauce, which is mostly fruity, with a faint pepperiness. The plantains would pair well with almost any sauce, but the guasaca would be an especially good combination.
The vegetarian arepa was a bright cornucopia of different vegetables. Between the corn, onions, and plantain the arepa was very sweet, so I would recommend the garlic mayo sauce to balance it out. Though our visit to Somos coincided with one of the last days of summer, it was impossible not to feel the bright flavors of the season in every mouthful. For those worried that the vegetarian options might not live up to the boldness of the more meat-based offerings, fear not. Both the vegetarian bowl (again, try it with the garlic mayo) and arepa contained rich, textured tastes that betrayed even more sophistication than their ingredients might suggest. And on a hot day, there was no better feeling than that the slick, cool sauces perfectly balanced against the warm dough of the arepa.
In addition to arepas, Somos Arepas serves tequeños, which are a neatly-packaged roll of dough and salty cheese perfect for dipping into different sauces. I tried a morsel of tequeño in each of the six, and the unanimous table consensus is that the best sauce for a tequeño is the guasaca. The guasaca sauce is creamy and cool, with an avocado-infused herbiness that refreshingly offsets the carby saltiness of the tequeño.
At the end of the meal the brothers came out for a conversation about food and family. Alejandro explained that he had the idea for Somos Arepas when he was working at an office job in New York. With the encouragement and participation of his brother Andres, they began making Somos Arepa into a reality in early 2020, with an opening date in March. Somos Arepa finally opened up for real in July 2020. But I had to ask them: knowing that it was going to turn out how it did, would you have done it all again? They both nodded yes right away. “Online orders are crazy,” Andres said, and Somos Arepa has been a hit among customers looking for gluten-free options.
“We have a good product. We can figure everything else out,” Alejandro said.