STICK A FORK IN IT Luis's shredded beef arepa.
Even though Venezuela has been much in the news, there is no pseudo-portentous way to relate the death of Hugo Chavez to the food at Luis's, a terrific Venezuelan arepera that opened last year in Saco. Seriously, there is none.
Alright, if you insist: Chavez was crispy on the outside, but a softy underneath — precisely like the arepa, the crown jewel of his native cuisine. He ranted against his enemies (and occasionally conspired to crush them), but also hosted a weekly talk show, Regis-style, in which he crooned love songs, flirted with models, and touchingly spoke of his concern for the poor (including here in Maine, where Venezuela subsidized heating oil for impoverished Mainers). When he hugged Castro you could see real tears in his eyes.
You might want to hug Luis the same way, or at least flirt with the guy, because he is creating first-rate arepas in his charming little shop. An arepa is a sandwich made with a crispy flat cornbread that has been sliced down the middle — a bit like an English muffin. This gives you the satisfying corn crunch of a taco, but also allows the soft interior to soak up the fats and juices from the (usually meat) filling. When done well, it creates a rich sweet-salt crunchy-soft mélange that beats any one-note taco, soft or crisp.
Luis is doing them very well. His arepas are a gorgeous yellow-gold, and not at all greasy. In fact they are surprisingly light and airy, and maintain just enough crunch even as the interior begins to soak up the delicious juices from the meat inside. That meat comes in such a big pile that the upper half of your arepa totters in its effort to contain it.
Luis is as deft with the expertly seasoned fillings as he is with the corn exterior. The shredded beef was cooked low-and-slow enough to become incredibly tender and fully infused with a garlicky tang of vinegar and a green herbiness. The shredded chicken also has a vinegar zing, mellowed by some sweetness and sharpened by chives and a hint of bitter green pepper. The ground beef — think taco loose, not burger-patty — is oniony and garlicky, and creamy with melted cheese. The pabellon criollo combined the shredded beef with modestly seasoned black beans.
Those four are the class of the bunch. If only he served shredded pork! The tuna arepa features a perfectly acceptable tuna salad, but is not as rich or interesting as the others. The three-cheese arepa is a bit bland. There is also an egg and cheese arepa for breakfast.
Luis's also does some terrific sides, including the best fried yuca in Maine. The big pieces are light and crisp, and the mild yuca flesh has just the right elastic give — rather than the soggy or chalky texture that is all too common. Fried plantains are a crispy green-brown, but underneath the crunch is a nice creaminess and mellow flavor. The black beans are just right, and the creamy horchata drink has a complex ricey-cinammony sweetness.