When Raul Claros first opened La Caraqueña in 2007, he wanted to make sure his food didn’t intimidate diners. “When we opened, people’s tastes were different,” the owner and chef says, recalling the early days of his Venezuelan restaurant tucked into Falls Church’s Stratford Motor Lodge. “People thought everything was going to be spicy.”
Back then, his focus was on a variety of Latin American cuisine because Claros wanted to have something for everyone. “We had Mexican, Chilean, Bolivian,” he says. “I had ‘safe’ dishes on there, too, like steak with mashed potatoes and broccoli.” La Caraqueña’s specialty, however, was a Venezuelan street food known as an arepa. The circles of grilled or fried corn dough filled with meat, cheese and beans took the area by storm and quickly became the restaurant’s most popular item.
Now, almost a decade later, Claros says people’s attitudes towards cuisine have changed and with diners’ expanding palates, he decided it was time for his food to change as well. Over the past several weeks, Claros has been experimenting with an all-new menu at La Caraqueña focusing on what it does best: street food.
The heart of the overhauled lineup is still the fan-favorite arepas (with a couple of new ones added in) but now there are also empanadas, pepitos, churros and what just might be your next favorite food: cachapas.
A cachapa is like a big corn pancake, folded in half and filled with cheese. With a corn kernel-filled batter and a mozzarella-like soft and melty queso de mano inside, it’s a sweet-and-salty combination that’s borderline addicting. Available plain or with four different types of cheese and the option to add ham, beef, pork or beans, each cachapa is served with a big dollop of a heavy cream spread called nata criolla on top. Let it be known– this is now a contender for the highlight of La Caraqueña’s menu. Watch your back, arepas.
Pepitos, popular Venezuelan roadside sandwiches served on French baguettes, replace La Caraqueña’s previous sandwich lineup and are available with ham, steak or pork leg, and empanadas, made with the same corn dough as the arepas, come filled with cheese, chicken or beef.
Appetizers, now known as small plates, have been overhauled, too. The tequenones have become tequenos, smaller, bite-sized versions of deep-fried sticks of queso blanco. There’s a play on papas bravas called papas arrechas, topping chunks of fried potatoes with Spanish sausage, salsa rosada and a fried egg. Another new addition, maiquesito, is similar to tequenos but instead of a wheat flour dough, the cheese is wrapped in a sweeter corn dough and served with nata criolla for dipping. And for everyone who’s ever had trouble deciding which arepa to order, perhaps the most exciting introduction is an all-new sampler platter made up of a trio of mini versions of La Caraqueña’s specialty. For now, the arepitas are limited to the carne mechada (pulled beef), reina pepeada (chicken, avocado and mayo) and domino (beans and cheese) varieties but Claros says he may open the sampler up to more options in the future.
The number of entrees has been pared down by more than half and gone is the “safe” steak and mashed potatoes, replaced with a sirloin steak served with chimichurri sauce over cheesy rice. Even the children’s menu received a makeover; there are no more grilled cheeses or chicken fingers (“I kicked them out the door,” says Claros) and instead it’s a selection of arepitas for the kids.
All these menu changes were a long time coming, says Claros, but they almost didn’t happen. Back in January, Claros was in a serious accident when the car he was riding in flipped over in the snow on I-66 and left him with two broken legs. After several days in the hospital, he was laid up at his home for four months. “I remember just watching the snow fall out of my window,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to ever make it back into the restaurant.” During a long and painful recovery which saw him progress from his bed to a wheelchair to a walker then to a cane until eventually, he was walking on his own, Claros spent a long time thinking about his restaurant. When he finally got back into La Caraqueña full-time this past August, he was ready to make it happen. “My life has changed,” Claros says, “So I wanted to do something different. Do something interesting.”
But, as with any big change, it hasn’t come without some trepidation. While La Caraqueña may be small, it has a large and dedicated following. The restaurant has been featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and is a favorite of D.C.-area critics and diners alike, so overhauling a sure thing is risky.
“I’m nervous about the change,” Claros says. “It’s scary.” Then with a smile he adds “but I think it will be delicious.”
La Caraqueña | 300 W Broad St, Falls Church | lacaraquena.com