Most people in the South are under the impression that Latin cuisine begins and ends with Mexican food. It’s an understandable misconception, considering most people in the South didn’t grow up with a Venezuelan mother. Tucked in between Colombia and Brazil, Venezuela is a beautiful land with a rich history and troubled past. But, for now, let’s talk about the food.
Maybe it’s because I grew up eating both types of cuisine, but I have always felt that there were more than a few similarities between Venezuelan foods and Southern foods. Both cuisines are deceptively simple in their methods of preparation, and both focus on hearty, filling meals that were traditionally meant for large families that had little money. There are also cultural similarities, such as Venezuelans’ warm, outgoing natures that reminded me of our oh-so-famous sense of Southern hospitality.
My absolute favorite dish prepared by my mom was arepas, a traditional Venezuelan dish of cornmeal cakes used to make sandwiches. Simple and tasty, I’ve always described them as grit cakes with a crispy outside texture. It’s precisely due to their simplicity that I’d long accepted that the only places I’d be able to get my arepa fix would be in one of my relatives’ kitchens — until my aunt told me that Java Werks on Hardy Street was serving them for lunch.
Directly across from the University of Southern Mississippi’s main entrance sits Java Werks, a small coffee shop that, from the outside, is virtually indistinguishable from any other coffee shop in any other city. Its charm lies inside, where Java Werks’ cozy, relaxed atmosphere reflects the personalities of its owners Cesar and Marbelis Potenza.
The Potenzas moved to Hattiesburg 10 years ago and have been running Java Werks for the last three. They began serving arepas for lunch as a way to bring Venezuela’s unique cuisine to the Southern U.S. Venezuelan cuisine lacks the spice of other Latin dishes, instead focusing on flavorful contrasts, blending both the savory and the sweet.
I asked Cesar for a traditional Venezuelan meal and he did not disappoint. He started by serving me a cold drink called Papelón con limón, a tart beverage made from pure cane sugar mixed with a touch of lemon, to go with my arepa. It reminds me of every Southerner’s preferred beverage — sweet tea. While arepas are only served during lunch, Papelón con limón is served around the clock, making for a tasty pick-me-up.
Moments after receiving my drink, Marbelis placed the arepa in front of me, beaming. I’d always thought of arepas as something of a breakfast staple, more like a biscuit than anything. The arepa on the table was something else entirely. Roughly the size of a steakhouse burger and stuffed with shredded chicken and cheese, this was the proverbial horse of a different color.
I held this massive arepa like a burger, per Cesar’s instructions, and bit in wholeheartedly. The thing that makes an arepa different than a sandwich is the arepa flatbread. The crunchy exterior contrasts with the fluffy, warm inside. To me, each bite feels like home. The chicken is tender and full of flavor. This isn’t chicken dumped out of a can. Full disclosure: I’ve always hated green peppers. They are either too crisp or too soggy for my liking, and even as a grown man, I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid them at all costs. But nestled amongst the juicy chicken and melted cheese of the arepa, I didn’t mind them a bit.
The arepas served at Java Werks are a simple food, yet they are immensely satisfying and filling. They aren’t like the ones my mom used to serve for breakfast, but I’d like to think she wouldn’t have turned her nose up at them.
Next time you find yourself craving something that is both simple and flavorful, stop by Java Werks and have the Potenzas prepare an arepa for you. They’ll be more than happy to serve you a little taste of Venezuela.
Photo by: Courtland Wells