¿CASA DE QUIÉN? Despite dishes named for Venezualan celebs — like their salmón Rubén Blades — most of Casa de Pedro’s food is bland. Still, if you look you can find some fine entreés on the menu.
There are many ways to stay under this column's radar. For Pedro Alarcon, the trick was to open a modest Venezuelan restaurant in the underrated locale of Watertown Square. He then moved to a quiet end of the Arsenal complex, north of the mall, and nearly opposite the New Rep's new theater in the Arsenal Center for the Arts. Decor-wise, the Alarcon organization eschewed subtlety, obtaining oversize palm trees, brightly colored mobiles, simple folk-art oil paintings, a saltwater aquarium with clownfish, and an atmosphere of magic realism that could challenge any Rainforest Cafe (without animatronics). Food-wise, the chef developed some bistro platters whose only connection to Latino culture is being naming after Venezuelan baseball players or salsa musicians, and some pop-Mexican food, since not everyone is into genuine South American cuisine. These decisions make the enlarged Casa de Pedro (and likely the new Pedro's Fine Latin Cuisine in Billerica) more attractive to mixed parties and multi-generational families than real aficionados, who will stick with Orinoco for their fixes of arepas and tostones.
It is, however, certainly possible to put together some fine Creole dishes at La Casa de Pedro. Start with yuca frita ($4.75), the purest fried-starch experience on the planet — despite the chef's addition of cilantro oil to the classic garlic, when garlic is all we need. Grilled white cheese ($4.75) is more like broiled, and served in a small cazuela (red-ware casserole). You can buy off children with tequeños ($8.75), the fried mozzarella cheese sticks that are apparently all the rage right now in Caracas. Sancocho ($6.50), a complex stew of root vegetables is more usually a Sunday-dinner entrée (here served only on the weekend). But La Casa's lighter version, prepared with a chicken base, makes for a good hungry-person appetizer. Ceviche ($10.25) is very nice: raw shrimp marinated in lime and cilantro, a mound of onions and tomato slices, decorated with corn nuts and strips of plantain chips.
I wasn't impressed by the arepa with chicken and avocado ($6) — one of five options for stuffed thick tortillas — because the grilled white corncake (the crucial item) was bland and stodgy where it ought to be, well, greasier and saltier.
The canonical entrée from Venezuela is the pabellón criollo: beef pulled to shreds, with plenty of black beans, fried sweet plantain, and Caribbean rice. Pedro's looks good, but tastes like pot roast (could be a little smoky) and is bland on the beans (could be more complex), fine on the plantains, and pilaf-style on the rice (could be oilier).