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Altamonte Springs Venezuelan restaurant connects cultures through arepas

Arepas are a top dish in Venezuelan and Colombian households

Maria Colon, the owner of Arepas Café and More
Maria Colon, the owner of Arepas Café and More (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. – The arepa is a cornerstone in both Venezuelan and Colombian cuisine, but people from all walks of life enjoy this South American comfort food every day.

News 6 spoke with Maria Colon, the owner of Arepas Café and More about the origin of the arepa and why she decided to open her own restaurant after migrating to the United States from Venezuela.

“Some studies indicate that the Cumanagotos Indians, a tribe of northeast region of Venezuela can be attributed to the origin of the arepa. The word arepa comes from the indigenous word ‘erepa,’ which means corn,” Colon said.

The arepa is a traditional food from both Venezuela and Colombia countries, but the debate over who invented the arepa still continues. Both countries make their arepas with corn dough and are commonly served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The main difference between the Venezuelan arepa and the Colombian one is the Venezuelan arepa is stuffed with a variety of various ingredients, whereas the Colombian arepa is usually stuffed with cheese or egg. And the preparation of the dough in the Colombian version differs from the Venezuelan one. Of course, Colon said the Venezuelans were the creators of the arepa — as would any Colombian.

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The best thing about the arepa is that it has no limitations. You can essentially put anything and everything inside or outside of an arepa, which makes it a staple in Hispanic households. There are many different types of arepas and local cafes, like Colon’s, usually give you the option to create and customize your own.

The arepa is a simple dish to make with only four ingredients — water, salt, cornmeal, and oil — but the taste is unmatched. It’s made with a warm white or yellow corn dough which can be grilled, baked, fried or steamed. It’s filled with various cheeses, which melt as it hits the warm crispy bread, and then topped with any kind of protein and/or vegetables that your heart desires.

Arepa from Arepas Café and More (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

It’s a dish that many Venezuelans and Colombians who live here in the United States cook to connect them to their country.

Colon said that she made her first arepa when she was just 2-years-old.

“When my grandmother was cooking the arepa, she would look for a chair and put it next to her so that I would also learn,” Colon said.

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She said there’s no right way to make an arepa, as long as it’s filled with a lot of love. She added the key to making the perfect arepa lies in the bread preparation.

“All arepas are made the right way. The principal ingredients are water and salt; but, over time, people have been placing more ingredients to put another flavor to the dough. Arepas are grilled, fried even boiled,” Colon said.

The arepa is one of the top Venezuelan dishes along with the Pabellon Plate — consisting of rice, black beans, sweet plantains and shredded beef — and the Hallacas — consisting of ham, bread and chicken salad — which is a dish served during the holidays.

Food from Arepas Café and More (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Colon moved to the United States from Barquisimeto, Venezuela in 2001 with her son, who was 2-years-old at the time. She settled down in Altamonte Springs and in June 2015 she opened Arepas Café and More.

“One day, during a reunion with some family, we were having a glass of wine — I made a wish during a toast and said, on my turn, ‘I wish to open a coffee shop where the people can come and enjoy good coffee and a good meal,’” she said.

Now, she and her family have a successful business and just opened an ice cream shop inspired by her daughter. During the pandemic, Colon’s 10-year-old daughter, Emma, came up with an idea to open an ice cream shop. Emma created the logo, menu, design and named it, Emma’s Sweet Delights. Colon is very grateful for the opportunity that allowed her to open this shop for her daughter to make both of their dreams come true.

Emma's Sweet Delights ice cream parlor, named for Maria Colon's daughter (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Colon is a single mom of three kids and credits her family for her success. She said, although there have been challenges, she was able to overcome them because of the love and support of her family.

“Running my own business has been a blessing and challenge for me. My children have always been with me helping and supporting me through this project. My mom and some of my cousins were also involved in this business, working and helping to grow this business,” she said.

It doesn’t matter if you’re cooking arepas by yourself or going out to eat with friends — this beloved food brings people together and Colon said her memories of making arepas with her family will last her a lifetime.

“A lot of memories come to my mind, especially when I was in Venezuela, growing up with all of my family together,” she said.

Those memories are very important to Colon. She hasn’t been back to Venezuela since 2011 because of the deteriorating political situation there. Colon still has some relatives in her home country but said about 90% of her family now live in the U.S., Argentina, and Chile.

Colon said that celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month is important because it reminds her of her origin, culture, experiences and meals she shares with her family.

The Colon family (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

For more information on Arepas Café and More click here.

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