La Latina is a small Venezuelan arepera (arepa joint) in a strip mall across from the railroad tracks running along Northeast Second Avenue in Miami’s Midtown neighborhood. Large vinyl panels of floral patterns, found objects and donated art (they opened during Art Basel) make for a colorful decor.
Order from the chalkboard menu at the counter. There are the signature arepas (corn cakes) baked and griddled here for a crispy crust, cachapas (sweet corn pancakes folded up with soft white cheese), empanadas, and pabellon plates with shredded meat, rice, beans and sweet plantains.
Business partners and lifelong friends Carlos Matheus and Julie Recao are from Caracas. They went to college in New York, where Carlos studied media management at NYU and Julie attended the Parsons School of Design. Carlos came to Miami to work at a law firm, and is now the manager of the arepera. Julie does the ordering and inventory from her home in San Francisco. The two talk every day, and she flies to Miami once a month.
Arepas are to Venezuelans what tortillas are to Mexicans. Both are made with ground corn and used as daily bread. Amerindians in the northern Andes made the first arepas using yuca, but the name means “maize” (corn) in the language of the coastal people.
The thick corn cakes are slit and stuffed with all kinds of fillings and dressed with sauces. Try the pelua (hair) with long strands of shredded beef, catira (blonde hair) with shredded chicken or pernil with chunks of roasted pork shoulder. The domino arepa oozes melted cheese with black beans. Boliarepitas are small, deep-fried balls of corn dough stuffed with cheese good dipped in avocado salsa and tangy nata (sour cream). Squirt bottles hold hot sauce, creamy garlic sauce and tartar.
For dessert, marquesa is like dense chocolate mousse mixed with bits of cookie.