Did you ever have the yen to open a restaurant? It’s an idea that lives deep in the hearts of many. Casual or fancy, it could be a showcase for your favorite foods, a place that your friends could gather, or maybe a cutting edge trend setter.
Javier Eastman acted on his dream. He wanted to be able to share the cuisine of his native Venezuela at a casual family-run eatery, with the emphasis on authentic food. Eastman’s goal was to recreate both the everyday food from his home town of El Vigia as well as favorites from across Venezuela.
Stepping into La Calle (The Street), at 74 North Main St. in SoNo, we were immediately struck with the welcoming decor. The Caribbean azure and sunset orange walls create a tropical relaxed mood setting the scene for some remarkable food. The greeting is warm and the staff friendly.
Javier led is through a tasting. All the while he told us about how he ended up owning a restaurant. It all stemmed from his love of the food and culture of his home country. Barrel-chested with close cropped hair, a flowing beard, and beautiful tattoos, he’s had a variety of careers, many based on his artistic skills. (You may have seen his mural of a toucan on the side of the Valencia Luncheria on Main Ave.) He’s a natural storyteller, weaving his love of Venezuelan food into his life experiences.
Chorizo en salsa de pimenton ($9) started us off. Thin lengthwise slices of mild chorizo were sauteed with slivers of sweet colorful bell pepper. Salty and sweet, it was just right with a crisp refreshing Polar beer from Venezuela.
The salty and sweet theme runs all through the menu at La Calle and across the traditional food of Venezuela. It’s a delicious and appealing contrast that appears again and again in the form of a sweet-ish wrapper and a salty filling.
Plantains are another constant across Venezuelan cooking. Slices of green plantains are pressed into cups and fried crisp to make tostones rellenos (7). At La Calle three of these crunchy bites, looking like stuffed mushrooms, were individually filled with shredded beef, braised chicken, and slow roasted pork. All were irresistible, but the chicken was, for me, a little more so.
Three bottles of traditional sauces were on the table: a garden fresh herbal green mayonnaise; yellow sweet corn sauce with the flavor of a fresh ear; and a pink ketchup and vinegar combination. Venezuelans apply these sauces liberally in their cuisine. Everyone has a favorite.
Javier explained that arepas are either grilled or fried before filling. “Grilled is the most popular in Venezuela,” he said. I found it hard to resist the crunch of the fried. He hopes that one day arepas will be as well known and popular as tacos.
Crisply fried was a good match for reina pepiada (6) filled with a smooth mixture of avocado and chicken. Pachanga (8), a traditional combination of salty grilled cheese, avocado slices, and chorizo, was right for the grilled arepa. Looking a little messy, I went at it with a knife and fork. “No, no,” Javier instructed, “you pick it up and take a bite.” It was good advice.
Pabellon (16) is billed on the menu as the national dish of Venezuela. A variation of the theme of rice and beans so popular around the Caribbean, it includes, white rice, black beans (caraotas negros), fried sweet plantains, meltingly tender shredded beef, and sliced avocado, all sprinkled with fresh cheese and topped with a fried egg. It’s usually eaten by mixing the various items by the forkful for a wide range of flavor combinations.
It’s not often that you see a new variation of the ever-present hamburger, but the one at La Calle is pretty unique. There’s a beef patty, of course, along with chorizo, smoked pork, salsa, corn, pepitas, and egg – all crammed into an arepa. Next time I’m really hungry, I’ll give it a try.
On the way in, we met Javier’s mother, America. “The desserts are all her recipes,” he confided. There are just two, but it’s still hard to choose. Quesillo is a rich and creamy flan or creme caramel with a firm silky texture that is only accomplished with lots of calories. Bienmesabe de coco is a moist tres leche cake with coconut. If your willpower is high, get one to share; if not get both. You won’t be sorry.
In addition to wine and beer, bottled or draft, you can get Venezuelan soda – Malta Polar or Frescolita. After we finished dinner, I noticed a row of dispensers with colorful, homemade fruit juice drinks (3). Lemon made with Venezuelan sugar cane, blackberry, and passion fruit are all a taste of home for Javier and his family.
As our tasting wound down, Marsha said, “I can see how you would crave this food.” I think she’s got that right. Javier has hit the mark – bringing the delicious well prepared flavors of Venezuela to South Norwalk.