The news from Venezuela hasn’t been good for a long time. Headlines remind the outside world of political turmoil, economic crisis, and a diaspora that extends to the United States. Those tragic circumstances belie a nation rich in heritage, culture, and resources. Unsurprisingly, the wealth that Venezuela offers also extends to the nation’s food traditions, which blend staples such as corn, rice, and legumes with the tropical bounty of a nearly equatorial latitude. Locally, a taste of what Venezuela has to offer is found at Que Chevere, a restaurant in downtown Mesa.
Que Chevere is on Main Street, halfway between the light rail stations at Center and Country Club, on a block dominated by vintage stores. Bike racks are found along Main Street. The name Que Chevere comes from a phrase in Spanish that roughly translates to interjections like “cool” or “awesome,” and the restaurant has a festive feel, beginning with its decor. As with most businesses on this block, the front entrance is shaded by an awning, but outside of Que Chevere, the color of the columns changes from the usual beige to a more vibrant orange.
An enclosed and shaded patio provides an outdoor dining option with a view of passing trains on Main Street. The interior of the restaurant is simple with basic wooden tables, concrete floors, and a big sign proclaiming “Venezuela” superimposed over the yellow, blue, and red colors of the nation’s flag. Around the small bar, posters celebrate Venezuelan boxers, and a mural across the room asserts national pride. Festive music from the home country comes in over the speakers, and two unobtrusive screens display sports for whomever is interested.
If there is one food that Venezuela is best known for, it’s arepas. Also popular in neighboring Colombia, these are thick corn cakes suitable for stuffing with cheese and meats. As a starter, Que Chevere offers mini-arepas with guasacaca, a salsa made with avocado and cilantro as two of the primary ingredients. Other appetizers include cheesy breadsticks known as tequeños and small empanadas stuffed with beef, chicken, or cheese. These two can be combined into a sampler suitable for an entire table to share as an introduction to the menu.
Full-size arepas, about the size of a burger or sandwich, are about half the entree menu. Arepas with shredded beef or chicken are the most straightforward options, each with the possibility of upgrading with cheese or avocado. The arepa reina pepiada combines poultry with avocado slices and cilantro sauce, and the arepa pabellon incorporates shredded beef, black beans, sweet plantains, and white cheese. For those who prefer meatless choices, the arepa domino is stuffed with black beans and cheese while the arepa vegan replaces dairy with avocado.
All the arepas come with a standard side of plantains chips; however, both French fries and sweet plantains are available as upgrades. All of the arepas resemble stuffed pita pockets but with a base of corn rather than wheat flour. Any of them can serve as a filling meal. Nevertheless, there is another half of the menu devoted to other dishes. The cachapa is an alternative form of corn cake with a layer of thick, stringy white cheese inside, some char from the griddle on the outside, and a format that seems halfway between a pancake and an omelet.
With the addition of beef, chicken, or ham, a cachapa almost resembles a Vietnamese bahn xeo in terms of appearing like a stuffed crepe. Another interestingly structured sandwich is the patacon, which is made not with bread, but instead with two planks of flattened and fried plantains providing the underlying structure. The filing is a mix of beef and chicken with some cheese, lettuce, and sauce enriching the overflowing sandwich. The pepito is a maximalist sandwich with beef, chicken, and pork served on top of an open faced baguette with parmesan.
Pabellon criollo is a platter that includes all the now familiar components from the rest of the menu – shredded beef, beans, rice, plantains, and plain arepa – in a deconstructed format. There is also a Venezuelan version of a hamburger on the menu with indulgent and abundant toppings that include a fried egg and ham. During weekday lunch hours only, an extended selection of not especially Venezuelan burgers is also available, perhaps as a concession to customers who have not yet fully embraced the restaurant’s more authentic foods.
Besides plantains and avocado, there appears at first glance to be little presence of vegetables or fruits on the menu, but that changes with the beverage selection. There is a rotating selection of fresh fruit juices. Those include tropical favorites like guava, as well as papelon de limon, a sort of Venezuelan lemonade made with sugar cane. One beverage crosses the line into liquid dessert territory. Chica is similar to horchata in taste, but more viscous due to the presence of condensed milk.The other dessert offering is a straightforward and satisfying flan.
Que Chevere augments the fruit juices with bottled beer, including the Venezuelan brew Polar when it is available, and a small selection of cocktails. Most of them incorporate tropical flavors like passion fruit or guava with rum being the most common spirit used. These drinks aren’t particularly strong, but at around five dollars per glass, the price is nothing like the hyperinflation that has bedeviled the Venezuelan economy. While the world hopes for better times in Venezuela, a small reminder of the good that nation has to offer is available now in Mesa.
142 W. Main St., Mesa AZ 85201