Growing up in Colombia, Juan Vergara routinely snacked off his parents' food cart, which they operated in and around the city of Cali. But once the family moved to the States, Juan began jonesing for the street food of his youth.
Those cravings became the germ of a restaurant concept — one that specializes in Colombian street food. In April, the Vergara family opened Barroco Grill, a small and quirky Lakewood café that deals in arepas. Made from hominy, arepas are like corny English muffins that are split open and filled with all manner of goodness.
"I took every single item from my parents' food cart and put them all on one menu," Juan explains. "The recipes are the same. The sauces are the same. The only difference between us and a street vendor in Colombia is that we have an actual store."
Not sure how the locals would respond, the Vergaras hedged their bets. In addition to the arepas and Cubanos, the original menu also featured chopped salads, phillies, and a turkey club. The latest menu swings in the opposite direction, ditching much of the Americanized food in favor of authentic Latin fare.
"When we started out, we wanted to make sure we catered to people who may not want to travel out of their comfort zone," says Juan. "But people were just eating the Latin stuff. We were very surprised at how quickly it took off."
It took off because the food is unique, delicious, and cheap. Each arepa starts with white hominy rather than packaged corn flour, as is common. The grains are soaked, cooked, ground, formed into patties, and griddle fried. They are hot, corny, and crisp, and when split open like a thick pita, they make an ideal sandwich vehicle.
"There's an easy way and a hard way to making arepas," says Juan. "We do it the hard way."
Fillings include chicken, steak, or pork, cooked on the grill with mushrooms, onions, and green peppers. New arepas come stuffed with Mexican-style spicy chorizo; ham, bacon, and pineapple; or bacon, lettuce, and tomato. About the size of a hamburger, each sandwich costs just $6.
Diners may customize their sandwiches with any of a half-dozen housemade sauces, delivered to the table in squeeze bottles. Among them are chimichurri, pineapple, ranchero, and a killer spicy peanut.
If you can manage to pull yourself away from the arepas, consider ordering the Cubano. This melty, meaty concoction is stuffed into a soft, crusty bun with sliced ham, shredded roast pork, cheese, and garlic sauce. I like it because it omits the mustard and pickles of the classic.
Also delicious are the skewers, made with marinated beef, pork, or chicken. Grilled to order, drizzled with chimichurri, and served on a bed of golden fries, this is street food with a seat.
One of the biggest hits at Barroco was a complete fluke, says Juan. Bored one day before the restaurant opened for business, he sliced some arepas into strips and dropped them into the deep fryer. What came out were arepa fries, Vergara's contribution to culinary history. The crunchy polenta-style fries are available on their own or, for a $2 upgrade, as part of the "cheesy corn," where they are served alongside a molten crock of cheese for dipping. This might possibly be the best drunk food ever.
"That's our own creation," says Juan. "I don't think you'll find that in Colombia."
Mom-and-pop ethnic shops often get the food right and practically everything else wrong. That's not the case here, thanks in no small part to Juan, a personable graphic design student. The brightly painted shop is decked out with edgy art. The menus are slick and professional. And the service is well-meaning, enthusiastic, and obliging. First-timers are given all the direction they desire, while regulars are left to enjoy their arepas in peace.
If you want an authentic taste of South American street food without crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, say "hola" to the Vergaras at Barroco Grill.