229-A Johnson St.
Vegetarian and vegan items
Patio dining in season
Noise level: quiet to cheerful chatter
Street and limited off-street parking
Breakfast and lunch8 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays,8 a.m.-7 p.m. Fridays,9 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays,9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays, closed Mondays
Most of us won’t be jetting off to Venezuela anytime soon — in May, the United States banned passenger and cargo flights to that country, and I’d personally prefer to steer well clear of Nicolás Maduro, thank you very much — but if you’re interested in exploring the South American nation culinarily, you’re in luck. At Santarepa Café, a sweet little Venezuelan restaurant occupying a colorful Johnson Street bungalow, proprietress Isabel Mendoza offers an opportunity to get a gustatory glimpse of Venezuela.
Mendoza greets you in an impressively effervescent and warm manner. Cheerful and friendly like your best tía or auntie, she’ll answer any questions, advising that while the reina pepiada ($9) is her favorite arepa, it’s really more appropriate at lunchtime. She’ll explain that quesillo ($5.50), a Venezuelan version of flan, differs somewhat from traditional Mexican and Spanish dessert in a few ways, not least of which is its deeply hued caramel, which creates a pleasant bitterness that offsets the mildly sweet condensed-milk-based custard. Before your food arrives, she’ll deliver bottles of house-made parsley-heavy chimichurri and creamy mayo-based garlic sauce. If she’s not the one who brings your food to the table, she’ll stroll over mid-meal to make sure you’re pleased so far.
Santarepa’s central downtown location and early hours — they’re only open at dinner-ish times two nights a week — make it an obvious destination for coffee, which you can accompany with adorable croissant-like pastries called cachitos ($2.50), crescent-shaped rolls stuffed with bacon and ham; sprightly traditional alfajores ($1.25), crumbly shortbread cookie sandwiches filled with dulce de leche and rolled in shredded coconut; or palmeritas ($1.95), known to the French and Francophiles as palmiers and to American fair-goers as elephant ears. For my next visit, I’ve got my mind set on tres leches cake ($6) topped with fluffy snow-white frosting and rainbow nonpareils.
That’s not to suggest that sweets dominate the menu — far from it, and even the sweet things find their balance. Sure, you can order thinly sliced fried plantains ($5.50), but they’ll arrive topped with grated mild white cheese (do yourself a favor and add a drop or two of chimichurri). You could sample one of the Mexican or South American apple sodas ($2.75), which come across like bubbly candy, or the funky-sweet Venezuelan lemonade ($2.50) made with panela — boiled and evaporated sugar cane juice that lends a vegetal flavor suggestive of rum. But these fairly saccharine beverages serve as a welcome contrast to the solid savoriness of, say, a “domino” empanada ($4.50), freshly made and still untouchably hot, with a crisp golden-brown crust and innards of soft black beans and molten white cheese. Or pabellón ($12), Venezuela’s version of beans and rice and the country’s national dish, which combines black beans, rice, cheese, shredded beef, and sweet plantains.
The centerpiece of the menu is, of course, its namesake: the arepa, of which Santarepa serves nearly a dozen. These cloud-like cornmeal cakes — filled or at least split open so you can stuff them to your heart’s content with practically anything — are served all day long. Breakfast versions here are brimming with beans and cheese; ham and cheese; eggs and a vibrant blend of onion, tomato, meat, cheese, and cilantro; or eggs, avocado, and cheese. The latter is called la favorita ($9.50), and it’s a filling and soothing balm, perfect for a morning jammed with too much news.
La vegana ($9) — Mendoza’s bestselling arepa — combines black beans, fried plantains, and avocado in a blend that is flavor-intense and nutrition-dense, though it suffers texturally from all the soft, smooshy contents. Meat lovers will appreciate the carne mechada ($9), a minimalist work packed with deeply savory shredded beef. Or that reina pepiada, whose name means “curvy queen,” by the way. The mild but rich combination of chicken, mayonnaise, and avocado brought to mind the finger sandwiches I’ve downed at innumerable weddings and baby showers.
If, like me, you suffer from decision-making disorder, sampler plates ($13.50) allow you to assess — in miniature versions — arepas, cachapas (remarkable corn pancakes, again vaguely sweet but sprinkled with grated cheese), and Latin American Hot Pockets: empanadas and pastelitos. These plates also include sides like those sweet-and-salty plantains or impossibly crisp and golden yucca fries that will make you momentarily forget the potato, hitherto your go-to for comfort carbs. For the less adventurous, breakfast features more typical scrambled-egg plates, while the lunch list includes two tostadas and a meaty sandwich made with nearly universal elements like lettuce, tomato, mustard, and ketchup.
Santarepa’s clientele varies pretty widely depending on the day and time. A random tourist may wander in, searching for coffee, while a multigenerational family occupies the large center table to celebrate papi’s cumpleaños. Savvy activewear-clad 30-somethings who’ve been biking their way around the city might stop in to refuel, while a gaggle of elderly ladies share gossip during an afternoon rainstorm on the breezy front portal.
This put me in mind of one of the late Jonathan Gold’s more quotable quips, a reminder that, especially at the table, “we are all strangers, together.” When rhapsodizing about the unifying nature of food, Gold was mostly talking about Los Angeles, but his idea of “cultures that live in the city who come together in this beautiful and haphazard fashion” can also apply, on a much smaller scale, to Santa Fe. Right now, Santarepa is part of a sweet little multicultural downtown cluster, with an upscale Italian restaurant for a neighbor and a Oaxacan joint just around the corner. Life is short, and you can only visit so many destinations in a lifetime, but with Santarepa’s help, you can take a little trip to Venezuela without leaving home. ◀