Arts & Entertainment

F.C. Restaurateur Honored With Breeders’ Cup Pick

raul_claros_010At 3 p.m. on a Sunday, La Caraquena is still full of people finishing their arepas – the signature Venezuelan grilled or fried cornmeal rounds stuffed with a variety of meats, cheeses and salsas. The black bean soups and sweet fried plantains are long gone. Raul Claros’ restaurant at 300 W. Broad St., Falls Church, has been open since 2007, and has recently been gaining national acclaim. Last year, the Food Network filmed there, and on Nov. 4, Claros’ cooking will be featured at the Breeders’ Cup, the annual Thouroughbred horse race held this Friday at Kentucky’s Churchill Downs, representing his home country of Venezuela.

Fifteen chefs have been selected to represent different international cuisines at the invite-only event created by celebrity chef Bobby Flay.

“I have to be there on Monday, and will be cooking all week,” said Claros in an interview last weekend. Along with the other chefs, he will prepare his dishes at his own booth styled as a mini-kitchen, so race-goers can see the whole process, from raw ingredients to prepared plate. Then, dishes will be paired with a mixologist’s drinks before being served.

Claros knows what it takes to run a restaurant, having grown up working in one. Though his father was an engineer and his mother a nurse, they started a restaurant to make ends meet when inflation in Venezuela dashed their original career hopes. He and his brothers helped out. As the baby of the family, he grew up hanging around with the cooks and servers; learning about cooking was like a game. As he grew older, weekend shifts at the restaurant often meant he missed soccer games and other events with his peers.

“There was a time in life when I was mad that I always had to work at a restaurant,” he said.

But working in the business is in his blood-“it’s half of who I am,” he said. When he moved to the States, his dream was to have his own restaurant with a little stage to play music. The dream wasn’t easy to achieve: learning English and getting used to a new culture were the first hurdles; attracting customers to the new restaurant was the second. Gradually, by word of mouth, people in Falls Church started hearing about the Broad Street eatery. Tom Sietsema of The Washington Post and critics from other major publications gave it good reviews.

What dishes do the critics like? Arepas, for one. A round of cornmeal dough is fried or grilled, then sliced partway through and buttered-“we say at home that an arepa without butter is not an arepa”-before being stuffed with the customer’s choice of fillings. Marinated pulled beef (carne mechada), avocado and chicken salad, or steak with sautéed onions and tomatoes and topped with cilantro are only a few of the options. Soups and salads round out the menu; and using the skills gained from preparing traditional plates, Raul also creates his own experimental dishes.

Claros and the crew are committed to creating an authentic sense of place.

“My parents told me: If you always cook like you’re cooking for your family, you will always serve good food at your restaurant,” he said. Claros wants customers to feel at home in the restaurant, and to feel like they are in a little piece of Venezuela. Appropriately enough, ‘La Caraquena’ means ‘the person from Caracas’ (the capital of Venezuela) the way people living in D.C. might call themselves “Washingtonians.”

The warm atmosphere of the restaurant extends to music as well as food. Sometimes, after the last meals have been served, around nine, Claros turns the music up. “I just hand out the instruments – one table gets the clave, another the campana, another the maracas, and I start playing the congas…we just jam, and people start dancing. Some people are quiet at the beginning of the night, or they say, ‘we don’t know how to dance,’ but in our restaurant they feel like they’re in their living room, and they loosen up and dance. The barrier goes away.” Can one plan to come for the music and dancing? “It’s spontaneous,” Claros said – but, “sometimes the customers ask for the music, so I just get out my congas and get it going.” Claros occasionally teaches salsa steps, and plans to offer more formal salsa lessons in the future.

Ultimately, the restaurant is about community. “I’m really grateful that people in Falls Church are so supportive,” Claros says. It’s been a long road to get to where they are, but “all the passion and effort that we’ve put into the restaurant is paying off.”