Just think of a really thick corn tortilla, lightly griddled, that's been sliced along the edge, forming a pocket. Now, stuff it with anything you want, but just be sure that plantains and black beans are among the fillings, if, that is, you want to keep it truly Venezuelan.
To a native Venezuelan, the sounds of arepa-making are like music to the ears. These savory corn pockets can be stuffed with dozens of items, and at Aripo's in downtown Oak Park, they offer nearly 20 varieties.
"If you wanna go for something really, really Venezuelan, you wanna go for that Nuestra, that Pabellon arepa, which is gonna have basically the black beans, shredded beef, the plantains and cheese which is gonna resemble Venezuela's national plate. So those three things basically speak Venezuela in an Arepa," said Jose Rodriguez, the owner of Aripo's.
All of the arepas start out the same: A basic dough is created by combining Venezuela's famous pan pre-cooked white corn meal with water. The batter is mixed by hand until it thickens.
Then the expert takes over, carefully kneading, shaping and flattening the arepa; even smoothing out the edge until it's perfectly uniform. They're cooked on the flat top griddle for just a few minutes, and then it's time to stuff them. Cheese seems to be a common theme.
"You can crumble them up, they go inside of the arepa they melt just fine. You can add it to the beans, which is very common. As a matter of fact, we serve the plates here with beans you're going to see the cheese on top, you're going to see it on the arepas, you're going to see it sometimes on the eggs as well," Rodriguez said.
There are two other tasty options. The conuquera is jammed with sauteed red peppers and onions, plus those sweet, fried plantains, black beans and grilled white cheese. Then, there's the Reina Pepiada -- a homemade chicken salad with sliced avocado.
Rodriguez is hoping people will embrace the humble arepa like they've already done with similar hand-held items from Mexico.
"That's what we want to accomplish; to have the arepas take off and be something that can be something different from a taco, something different from a burrito, something different from a margarita which is basically what the typical crowd is used to," Rodriguez said.
The restaurant also makes its own aguas frescas, or fresh fruit drinks, and they have some really intriguing flavors that just so happen to match up perfectly with the arepas.
Aripo's Venezuelan Arepa House
118 N Marion St., Oak Park