A recent post on the Chow Down Atlanta blog the other day reminded me that I had long wanted to try Las Arepas de Julia — a Colombian restaurant in Lilburn that specializes in these savory griddled corn cakes. This article by food writer Lori Johnston piqued my curiousity a year ago.
I found Las Arepas de Julia in the space that was formerly Tropical Restaurant — another Colombian place that specialized in pastries and baked goods, including a great red wine-soaked spice cake called torta negra. The room has been prettified, and the self-service pastry cases have been replaced with tables. A waitress who speaks a little more English than she lets on passes out thick, laminated menus that offer a variety of arepa sandwiches, entrees and daily specials. Most of the crowd the day we visited were eating bandeja paisa — the Colombian plate lunch that piles beans, egg, avocado, an arepa, a thick rasher of fried pork belly and other goodies onto a oversized platter. My friend and I went for a variety of arepas.
The pleasure of an arepa comes in that special flavor of toasted ground corn. It’s a flavor your soul knows, that musky smoke of char giving way to a sweet, buttery, bran-bitter taste of dried corn. You know it from tortillas or hoe cakes or even polenta. I’ve heard that argument that the main reason to stir and stir polenta rather than choosing one of the effective quick-cooking methods is so that you toast the grain on the bottom of the pot.
We really loved this arepa de chocolo — a sweet yellow corn pancake stuffed with melty white cheese. It was good as is, and even better with a bit of the provided Country Crock spread over the top.
There are a trio of salsas with which you can dress any of the arepas. The green sauce brings a creamy, sweet blend of herbs and garlic. The pink sauce seems like Russian dressing, and the red sauce is a suave tomato/chile/onion number.
We sampled a couple of savory white arepa sandwiches. The one above holds shredded chicken and mushrooms in something called “Creole sauce” that seems to be little more than flecks of tomato. On the left is the arepa paisa — an unusual pocket of squish. Cumin-heavy beans, pork skin, beef, guacamole and sweet plantains combine into a mouthful of creamy, pasty, tacky, meaty, bumpy flavor that yields the occasional squiggle of cartilage. I think I liked it more than my friend.
You can also eat an arepa topped with cheese and a fresh-off-the-grill slab of beef, pork or chicken. Here’s one with a well-seasoned slab of well done beef. It makes for a nice lunch with a heavy shot of tomato salsa. We liked this better than either of the sandwiches, which were a little cumbersome to eat with their tough arepa wraps and hot, slippery fillings.
We finished the meal with a bowl of spiced preserved figs with salty white cheese and a big blop of arequipe — the milk caramel spread. It was interesting for a bite but got weird when when we realized the figs were spiced just like canned beets.