Often I run into people who offer suggestions about where to go for some great food fare. And I smile because more often than not, their suggestions are for restaurants perhaps a notch above McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the bottom of your garbage can. What else can you do other than display a stupid smile, nod, and say blank statements like, “I will have to try that restaurant”?
Well, in walks a co-worker who writes on my whiteboard: Aripo’s. Then she says that it is a Venezuelan eatery in Oak Park, Illinois. Hmmm. Of all the ethnic restaurants I have frequented, Venezuelan has not been one of them. So my palms sweated. My heart beat faster. My mouth watered. And considering she has given me the names of some restaurants, cafes, diners, and gems that have never disappointed, I immediately entered into my personal calendar a date to venture to Aripo’s.
Located at 118 N. Marion Street in Oak Park, Illinois, Aripo’s is not a huge restaurant that panders to pomp. It has a bit of a fast food feel to it, mostly because it is in an outdoor strip mall that sits in the Oak Park, Illinois, business district. While slightly dim inside, but not to a point where you find yourself saying, “Ah, mood lighting,” it is still spacious enough where you can sit without having other patrons at your table with you. Lucky for me, there were seats outside and the weather was nice, so I opted to enjoy my food outside.
Being primarily vegetarian, I wanted to try something authentic but with some seafood in it. Queue the sound byte to “Jaws.” Pan in to the water with at least a few dozen human morsels for nibbling. Now there is the fin. A scream. Pandemonium. And someone bumps the record player, the needle scratches the record, and there is a scene with me outside Aripo’s stuffing a shark sandwich in my mouth. Dramatic? Perhaps. Tasty? Hell, yes!
At the recommendation of the cashier, I had ordered a minced cazon (e.g, Caribbean shark) sandwich that reminded me so much of a spicy tuna sandwich. I had never had shark before and I must apologize to Jaws for licking my lips with no remorse. With this also being the first time having arepa bread, that being the bread for the sandwich, eating it with minced shark between it was yummy in multiple languages, smiles, growls, and expressions. Knowing that the sandwich was going to be filling, I opted for plantains as a side order. Immediately after the first bite I imagined myself in Sheffield, Jamaica, sitting under a june plum tree watching the sun go down and wallowing on a human size plate of sweet plantains. You have to go to the Caribbean to understand, not just to a restaurant that serves delicious plantains. And the Venezuelan lemonade. ¡Ave, Maria! I do not know what it is about these restaurants in the Caribbean and in the tropics that prepare lemonade so good that you stomp your feet, smack the table, and simply start random babbling.
This was only an initial trip to Aripo’s to sample a small taste of what they have on their menu. I had read some reviews by a few individuals who had pissed and moaned about the service and the food. After my visit, clearly those characters are of the ilk that thinks McDonald’s is haute cuisine. I should have them talk to the quasi food sages who keep telling me about various magnificent restaurants in Chicago — that serve up happiness from the microwave and frozen food sections from the local markets. The discriminating palate knows. Just ask Jaws.
Redux — 22 August 2010
I am finding that the immediate neighbouring suburbs to Chicago are full of eateries that are out of this world. I had sampled some bites at Aripo’s a few weeks past and wanted to try at least one more menu item. So, I boarded the circus train that passes through the Wild West Side on my way back to Oak Park so that I could put my feet under a table at Aripo’s.
The cashier remembered my face. This is a selling point. She also remembered that I had said I was mostly vegetarian. However, I really wanted to be adventurous and put my vegetarianism on hold for a dish. I went way off the path with a pabellon criollo. This was spiced, pulled beef served with rice, fried plantains, and black beans. Wow! Double wow! Now say wow with one hand on top of your head and another hand rubbing your belly. Talk about tender. Talk about succulent. Talk about not feeling like I had done something terribly wrong by eating meat. This was a perfect lunch and having rice cooked just right, plantains fried just right, and black beans not cooked to a paste, my only regret was not having tried a beef or chicken dish when I first went to the restaurant.
The meal came with an arepa. This bread reminded me so much of Johnny cakes that my grandmother used to make for me when I was a little kid. The texture may be a bit off-putting for some people, but it went over very well with the seasoned beef, rice, plantains, and beans. And now that I think of it, I may consider buying a few at some point and having them on hand at home with some maple syrup for breakfast.
Aripo’s has indeed proven to be a very good authentic Venezuelan restaurant with a price that does not empty your wallet. You are, however, assured of having your belly filled. Chicago. Oak Park. Heaven. As long as I can find good food that like at Aripo’s, I am there.
Redux — 10 May 2014
I returned. The weather was perfect, it was a Saturday afternoon, and I had nothing but time to spare. I had initially wanted to get some Brazilian food, but I got off the bus at the wrong train line. After realizing my haste, I knew which end of Oak Park I would go to and which restaurant I would fortify myself at. Yes, Aripo’s Venezuelan Arepa House was it and this time I had empanadas dominos with red and green sauces, and I also had cachapas with chicken.
When most people think of empanadas, they have thoughts of the flaky, baked goodies that are stuffed with cheese, chicken, beef, seafood, or some flavourful filling. Empanadas dominos are deep-fried and filled with chihuahua cheese and black beans. Because I had two, I opted to have the red sauce, which was spicy, and the green sauce that was spicy mayonnaise with a hint of cilantro. Happiness ensued with each bite. I was headed straight for the moon when I started working my knife and fork on the cachapas with chicken. Two large corn pancakes sandwiching fried cheese and spicy, pulled chicken are a winning combination that no one should go through life without experiencing. It’s hard to believe — well, not really — that I walked into this restaurant in 2010 and each time I return, it’s as though I am having a brand new discovery. It goes without saying that I will see what else I can find exciting on their menu in the near future.