Walk into the vibrant Colombian restaurant Las Arepas de Julia and you’ll instantly feel a warm familial vibe. Walls are painted bright orange, and owner Julia Cardona and her employees are posted behind the restaurant’s front counter happily chatting up the constant stream of Latin customers. As the name suggests, the Lilburn restaurant specializes in arepas – thick, soft tortilla patties made with ground cornmeal.
Arepas come in various forms at Julia’s. The ones that appear the most are grilled circular ones made with white cornmeal. The tortillas have slightly charred surfaces and are used as buns to anchor the kitchen’s various protein pairings. Arepitas, smaller coin-sized arepas also made with white cornmeal, are served stand-alone as accompaniments to other dishes on the menu. I’ve worked my way through a lot of the arepa combinations and found them to be a bit monochromatic, but I found myself swooning over the restaurant’s other traditional Colombian offerings.
The arepa de pollo ($5.50), filled with chicken, cheese and mushrooms, closely resembles a chicken tamale in taste, but it left me underwhelmed. The same goes for the arepa marinera ($6.50), containing shrimp and salsa rosada (ketchup and mayonnaise sauce). They both lack oomph contrasted against neutrally flavored discs of arepa. But there are a variety of sauces in squeeze bottles that can be used to doctor up the flavor. More salsa rosada can be drizzled over the arepa marinera, as well as an herby salsa verde or a spicy red one made with arbol chiles. Another option is hogoa, a puckery concoction of diced tomato and onion; a small serving always comes to your table and can be spooned into the arepa.
But the arepa de chocolo ($2.99), served with butter, is where I’m sold. This version is made with sweeter yellow cornmeal, and when I tear it apart, the inside reveals gooey melted farmer’s cheese. I’m tempted to order a few on my next visit and stack them like flapjacks.
Julia, a native of Medellin, Colombia, boasts that most of the restaurant dishes are family recipes. My favorite is the ajiaco ($10.99, only served on weekends) – a shredded chicken, corn and multipotato soup topped with chopped guascas (a native Colombian herb similar to parsley). A small ramekin of heavy cream dotted with capers, which can be stirred into the dish, is also served alongside. On its own the chicken soup soothes the soul like Mom’s; add the heavy cream and capers, then it turns into an addictive bisque.
The bandeja paisa ($11.99) also impresses. The dish is a gluttonous onslaught of thin steak, fried egg, a bowl of pork-flavored red beans, white rice, chorizo, arepita and a generous band of chicharrón (deep-fried pork rind) that crunches and bursts of porky goodness. The type of steak used here, a thin slab of seasoned top sirloin, usually disappoints me at other Latin restaurants due to leathery texture and underseasoning. Here, it is flavored throughout with salt and garlic, and the bite is tender to the teeth.
Las Arepas de Julia is a solid neighborhood dining spot in Lilburn. The menu is fun, extensive and very affordable. Julia’s family recipes beckon for more exploration.LAS AREPAS DE JULIA 4044 Lawrenceville Highway, Lilburn, 770-559-4094 Food: Rustic comfort food of indigenous South American and Spanish influence Service: Good Best Dishes: Ajiaco, bandeja paisa, arepa de chocolo Vegetarian Selections: Side vegetable-based dishes of arepas, plantains, rice and beans. A “make your own arepa” option is offered where only vegetables can be chosen. Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, Discover Hours: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays Children: Yes Parking: In lot Reservations: No Wheelchair Access: Yes Smoking: No Noise Level: Low Patio: No Takeout: Yes