On a typical day, about half of the overhead TV screens lining the walls of EpaChamo’s dining room and bar are tuned to a soccer match. That’s not surprising, given the restaurant’s South American roots. A family-run eatery opened last September on Durham’s Ninth Street, EpaChamo specializes in Venezuelan arepas, savory cornmeal dough flatbreads stuffed with a wide variety of filling combinations.
The rest of those flat screens are devoted to a slideshow of Venezuela’s national parks and scenic destinations. But these are not just a digital age update of the travel posters that have historically been the standard ethnic-restaurant-on-a-shoestring-budget decor. Taken by owner/chef Mike Gutierrez and other family members, the pictures are mementos of the country where Gutierrez was born and grew up.
While the slideshow depicts fond memories of the chef’s homeland, the electronic nature of the presentation hints at a personality that is not bound by the past. That personality also shows up in EpaChamo’s menu of arepas and other street food favorites that, while remaining firmly rooted in Venezuelan tradition, the chef freely adapts to accommodate the tastes of his adopted home.
Even the item touted on the menu as Venezuela’s national dish, the arepa de Pabellon, is not immune from a little tweaking. All the key components of the classic filling – succulent shreds of stewed beef, black beans redolent of cumin, candy-sweet slices of fried ripe plantain and salty crumbles of fresh white cheese – are present and skillfully executed. But Gutierrez opts to serve the beans on the side.
“A lot of people here like the beans on the side,” the chef explains. “I think mostly because it gets really messy with the beans in the arepa.” Of course, you’re free to add the beans to the arepa yourself – if, that is, you can find a way to squeeze them into an arepa that’s already crammed full to the point of spilling its contents onto the butcher paper-lined plate it’s served on.
Other winning variations on the arepa theme include Sifrina (shredded chicken and cheese – provolone or Gouda) and La Llanera (thick, juicy slices of house-roasted beef with avocado, tomato and cheese). All arepas come with crisp ribbons of fried plantain and guasacaca, a creamy avocado sauce that’s a classic arepa condiment but also makes a fine dip for the plantains.
As versatile as it is addictive, guasacaca makes another appearance on the Sandwich de Pernil, where it joins slow-roasted pork, cheese, lettuce, tomato and avocado in a Neomonde hoagie bun. The Pernil is one of just a handful of sandwiches on a list that still manages to cover a broad spectrum of flavors, from the Argentinean-inspired Chimi-Churi Churrasco to the best-selling (and deservedly so) Pepito, a behemoth loaded with your choice of meat plus caramelized onions, Gouda, lettuce, tomato and crisp potato sticks.
It’s also easy to understand the popularity – both in Durham and in the Venezuelan capital it’s named for – of the Caraqueña burger. A towering omnivore’s dream as tall as it is broad, the Caraqueña serves up a custom blend of ground beef and bacon, grilled to order and piled onto a sturdy bun along with a boneless smoked pork chop, grated cheddar, cilantro coleslaw, lettuce, tomato, onion, garlic sauce – and, delivering the perfect crunchy counterpoint, potato sticks.
EpaChamo delivers some serious caloric bang for your buck (the burger comes with plantain chips or excellent fries and will only set you back $10.95), so you’ll want to take that into consideration when mulling your appetizer options. Arepitas, anise-scented fritters of arepa dough, lightly sweetened with a drizzle of raw sugar cane syrup and paired with queso fresco, make a fine nibbling companion for one of EpaChamo’s tropical cocktails, and won’t fill you up too much. But you’ll probably want to plan on sharing if you order cachapas, a large cornmeal pancake griddled to a mottled golden brown and folded around cubes of fresh white cheese. Especially if you spring for the optional bacon, ham or juicy slices of roasted pork.
For my money, though, the star of the appetizer list is a recent addition to the menu. Empanadas, delicate cornmeal crescents filled with cheese or savory shreds of chicken, are one of several tweaks to a menu that Gutierrez says is still evolving. He has recently been experimenting with shrimp arepa variations (grilled, fried, even a shrimp cocktail arepa), and has expanded the dessert selection to include a few cheesecake variations.
In fact, if you’ve got a sweet tooth, I’d resist the siren call of the coconut rum quesillo, a Venezuelan flan that tends to be overcooked, and opt instead for the guava cheesecake.
“It’s just a classic American cheesecake with guava paste on top,” Gutierrez says, “but it’s really good.”
It is indeed. And it’s hard to imagine a more fitting conclusion to a meal at EpaChamo, where the flavors of Venezuela come to America and settle in like they’ve always belonged here.
730 Ninth St., Durham; 984-439-2923
Atmosphere: casual and colorful
Noise level: moderate
Recommended: empanadas, arepas, Pepito sandwich, Caraqueña burger, guava cheesecake
Open: lunch and dinner daily
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking on street and in lot across the street.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆ Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.