The Detroit restaurant scene has been dominated lately by glossy, high-powered efforts in downtown, Corktown and midtown that have been garnering a lot of chatter. They tend to overshadow another genre of restaurants, the little places in obscure neighborhoods that may not have all the bells and whistles, but add ethnic flavor and grass-roots charm to the scene.
One of the newest of that group is El Rey de las Arepas, the first Venezuelan restaurant in Detroit, open just a few weeks now.
It's a family enterprise, as might be expected, with brother/sister Jessica and Rayner (Ray) Gutierrez and their mother, Zoraida, who's the cook, presiding over the restaurant, seating a capacity of just 25, in a colorfully painted house on St. John Street off Michigan Avenue. It's as modest as its off-the-beaten track location, with the focus on the food, the background music and one other important ingredient — the friendliness and warmth of the family happy to show off their heritage.
The brief menu starts with arepas, the thick round corn cakes that are split and filled with any number of ingredients, from shredded chicken or beef with avocado and mayonnaise to pork or sausage or chicharron (crisp, double-cooked pork skin), which are eaten by hand like a sandwich — probably one of the messiest sandwiches you'll ever encounter. It takes a steady hand to keep the filling in place, so no one will be surprised if you ask for a knife and fork... and more napkins.
Arepas also come in a miniature version, served as bread with such dishes as parrilla, or mixed grill, with a choice of meats from pork, chicken and beef to sausage. That's a complete meal with a fresh little green salad on the plate.
Said to be the national dish of Venezuela, pabellon criollo includes a balanced combination of shredded beef, rice, black beans and fried plantains, and like most of the country's dishes, it is not spicy. Those who want to add a little heat may ask for some of the house-made garlic sauce or hot sauce.
The weekday menu expands a bit on weekends, when Zoraida Gutierrez adds a few dishes, including quecillo, a lovely flan-like dessert. One particular dish is available only by special order a week in advance. It's hallacas, the Venezuelan version of tamales, a labor-intensive dish of beef, pork or chicken mixed with olives, raisins, capers, and onions, seasoned with paprika and wrapped in banana leaves.
Dishes like pabellon, cachapa (cheese-stuffed corn dough pancakes), tostones (twice-fried green plantains) and parilla are probably unfamiliar even to some of those who pride themselves on knowing where to find hideaways around town. Thanks to El Rey de las Arepas, they can now be added to the foodie repertoire.
Because it is out-of-the-way, El Rey de las Arepas expands its reach by offering delivery within a seven-mile radius.
El Rey de las Arepas
6874 St. John Street, Detroit
Call: (313) 307-2210
Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon., and Wed.-Sun. Closed Tues.
Credit cards: None, but Square card reader for chip cards is being considered.
Liquor: Soft drinks only
Noise level: Moderate
Wheelchair access: Steps at entrance, ramp to come