Papelon Arepa Bar gets Southwest Detroit acquainted with a Venezuelan staple 

click to enlarge “Queen” and pork arepas from Papelon Arepa Bar.

Tom Perkins

“Queen” and pork arepas from Papelon Arepa Bar.

What exactly is an arepa? It really depends on who you ask. "Venzuelan sandwiches" are a common description, though that doesn't quite do them justice. Metro Times' Jane Slaughter previously called them "sort of like a huge English muffin, but with flavor," which seems closer. The internet likens them to everything from pancakes to tortillas, but they're getting cold.

In short, there's nothing exactly analogous in the U.S. to compare it to, which seems to be how Americans like to efficiently describe foods that are uncommon here. Really, the Venezuelan staple is a soft disc made with masarepa, or dehydrated cornmeal that's grilled or fried, then stuffed with any number of meats, cheeses, or plantains.

As Papelon Arepa Bar co-owner Maria Gonzalez puts it, arepas are "kind of like a gluten-free bread made out of white corn" with a texture more similar to a warm cookie. They're "Venezuelan tacos," Gonzalez says, though she means that more in a cultural sense than a physical comparison. She and husband-chef Fernando Gonzalez's new-ish food cart that takes up residence on weekend days outside a Springwells Street barber shop in Southwest Detroit is one of the only sources in town.

The white corn is what sets the vessel apart from these other dishes, and the dense package should be crispy on the outside, and warm and soft inside. That's how they arrive at Papelon, and it offers several options in terms of stuffing. Though all of them pop, Papelon's pork arepas with small pieces of salty pig seasoned with salt, pepper, and basil stands out. The Gonzalezes fry and grill the pork, and coat all their arepas with a thick layer of muenster or gouda cheese.

Papelon's moist shredded chicken is slow-cooked with bell peppers, onion, garlic, and tomato sauce, then enhanced with a thick layer of cheese. Again, it's a simple mix that pumps out a big amount of flavor. Also awesome is the "queen" arepa, which is a chicken salad-like mix of bird, avocado, garlic sauce, mayo, lime, cilantro, and spices. For vegetarians, Papelon can make an arepa with cheese or fried plantains, or both.

Beyond the arepa, Papelon's cachapa is a sweet and savory dish similar to a crumpet or pancake that's made with fresh corn that Fernando Gonzalez cooks up in the cart's griddle. It's topped with two types of cheese, as well as hunks of fried, salty pork or shredded chicken.

Papelon also serves tequeños, which are essentially Venezuelan cheese sticks, and Maria Fernandez says the cart will sell frozen food that people can take home during the winter. As the weather turns cold, Papelon may only open on Sundays or for special events.

Like several other notable Southwest Detroit chefs, Maria and Ferando Gonzalez are starting their food business as a side hustle. They grew up in the same hometown of Puerto La Cruz and left Venezuela around seven years ago, but didn't meet until they were living in neighboring Colombia. After a short stay in Mexico, they recently took jobs in Detroit's auto industry, and are now dipping their toes in the restaurant business with Papelon. Fernando, who does most of the cooking, is part of a family that owns three restaurants in Venezuela and Colombia, so the pair aren't totally new to food.

While it's a small operation with a short menu, Papelon is yet another reminder that the city's best eating isn't in the media-hyped restaurants in downtown or Midtown, but in kitchens in places like Southwest Detroit, Dearborn, and Madison Heights.

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