Re-runs still occasionally play of La Caraqueña’s appearance on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” a Food Network TV show that highlights the best in each category at restaurants across the nation. It’s probably the restaurant’s location that landed La Caraqueña on the show and earned it the somewhat dubious distinction of a dive – it’s situated in a ground-level corner of the Stratford Motor Lodge motel. If the word “dive” conjures up thoughts of dingy interiors and questionable grub for those who’ve seen the show and want to check out La Caraqueña, though, any such concerns are quickly put out of mind with a visit to this Latin American restaurant.
A tiny dining room of big green booths seats just a couple dozen diners. The walls bear a few pieces of colorful art, as well as a glass-encased memento from the restaurant’s appearance on the show (a decorated chef’s jacket).
Appetizers on the menu are few, just a handful of fried dishes. The Tequeñones ($8.99) among them offer massive sticks of deep-fried cheese. The cheese, wrapped in wheat dough and fried for a crispy shell, stands up to the heat and is not stringy as one might expect, but dense and flavorful. A bowl of chopped green pepper salsa can add a potent kick of heat.
The Arepas, however, steal the show. The restaurant serves about a dozen of the cornmeal bread sandwiches, a Venezuelan specialty, from the plain and cheese-stuffed varieties to many meat-packed options. The Sifrina ($8.99), Peluda ($9.99), and JP’s Favorite ($8.49) are the most popular picks. In the Sifrina, as seen on the show, a chunky chicken salad of meat and avocado overflows from the crisp-edged, fluffy Arepas, served open like a clamshell, the exposed filling sprinkled with cheese. The Peluda offers up pulled meat so well-seasoned that little else is needed for a satisfying sandwich, though a bit of cheese is a nice addition. The JP’s Favorite makes thin slices of steak its highlight, accented with some onion, tomato, and cilantro.
While the entrees selection offers a number of Latin American eats, the menu highlights another Venezuelan dish. The traditional Venezuelan Pabellón Criollo ($13.99) seems simple enough – some pulled beef, black beans, white rice, and plantains are promised. But when the dish comes to the table, the attention paid to these basic ingredients is proven extraordinary. The beans, beef, and rice lie row by row in a shallow bowl, with a few slices of fried plantain perched on the rim. Deep, smoky flavor comes from the black beans; the meat is savory and just spicy enough; the rice takes on bits of the beans and beef as the diner forks through the dish; and the plantain slices are soft and lightly sweet with a nice crunch at their darkened edges. Other Pabellón varieties on the menu add fried egg, cheese, and slices of avocado to the already delectable quartet.
The restaurant’s take on the standard tres leches dessert shows similar care paid to simple, traditional dishes. In the Cuatro Leches ($6.99), one more milk has been added to further sweeten the cake. At the spoon’s pressure, the creamy milk filling oozes from the whipped cream-topped treat, a sure sign of the sweetness the soaked cake holds.
The La Caraqueña motto is “food with passion.” That passion shows in the dishes it serves, and it’s no wonder that, as strange as the notion sounds, diners are driving to the local motel for fine Latin American cuisine.
La Caraqueña is located at 300 W. Broad St., Falls Church. For more information, call 703-533-0076 or visit lacaraquena.com. Restaurant hours are Monday, Wednesday – Friday: Noon – 2:30 p.m., 5:30 – 10 p.m.; Saturday: 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m., 5:30 – 10 p.m.; and Sunday: 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m., 5:30 – 9 p.m.