Restaurant: El Venezolano
Neighbourhood: Toronto – Core
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Kensington Market often gets praised as the Toronto neighbourhood with the most diverse food offerings and in terms of density, that may be correct. But hear me out – Greektown on the Danforth is a contender. The presence of Greek restaurants on the strip still remains quite strong, though many of the better spots can be found north of the Danforth. There’s also a longstanding Ethiopian presence east of the main Greektown, but vacancies are often filled by restaurants serving food that was previously unavailable in the area.
El Venezolano is one such restaurant, opening in 2017. Its neighbours include an izakaya, pide purveyor, an Ivorian restaurant and a gourmet Spanish market. The exterior of the restaurant is very inviting, with a raised, bleached wood patio and Venezuelan flag hanging proudly. Inside, the restaurant is fairly barebones save for the fake tropical plants and a green wall with “I eat arepas” boldly written on top. Latin beats were pumping through the speakers, which only served to remind me how much COVID sucks. This would be a great spot to pre-drink with friends, not that I did that a whole lot pre-pandemic. Anyways, given the restaurant’s vibe, I was surprised to meet the very down-to-earth, softspoken owner, who introduced himself by full name. George Roberson runs the spot with his son, and both were very happy to walk us through the menu at the front of the restaurant.
The Sampler Platter
Their calling card is the El Venezolanito appetizer platter, designed as an accompaniment to a round of drinks. It covers all the important bases in the country’s corn-rich world of snacks – two mini-sized versions each of arepas, cachapas, tequeños, empanadas and patacones. Let’s start with tequeños, a cousin of the mozzarella stick. They took thick, butter laden dough and stuffed with queso de mano, Venezuela’s ubiquitous white cheese that delivered salty, dairy goodness. I’m convinced tequeños are the best cheese pull food in the world and if that secret gets out, a crowd of food bloggers would converge on Venezuelan restaurants. The only other non-corn dish on the platter are the patacones. Twice fried green plantains, topped with a slaw and a mysterious pink sauce which we couldn’t get enough of. The subtlety to partially smash the plantains wasn’t lost on me, as the tactic maximized the surface area for frying.
The three other dishes reflect El Venezolano’s mastery of corn. Venezuelan empanadas are one of the few iterations made with harina-based dough, resulting in a fascinating texture. The outside became slightly caramelized, while the inner portion of the dough was slightly mushy. The slight sweetness of the dough was well contrasted by the crumbled beef and the side guasaca, an avocado-based sauce that’s more earthy and punchy than it is creamy. The sandwich-like arepas were stuffed with shredded cheese while the flat cachapas were topped with them. The cachapa was a textural delight, with a chunky creamed corn texture balanced by the griddled, crispy crust.
The National Dish
I could subsist on Venezuelan finger foods alone, but it would be a disservice to reduce Venezuelan cuisine to its use of corn. Pabellon criollo is the country’s national dish, though the components may differ slightly from restaurant to restaurant. Here, the platter comes with shredded beef, rice, black beans, a sunnyside up egg and fried plantains topped with queso de mano. Each individual component was nearly perfect. The beans were cooked just right, with the bean liquid reduced until a creamy thickness was achieved. I could eat the fragrant rice on its own, soaked with a savoury stock that I couldn’t quite place. The pulled beef sat in its own flavourful juices and had some crispy bits to maintain texture. Little bits of onions and a variety of minced peppers added serious complexity. The fried egg with runny yolk and caramelized plantains coated with cheese added fattiness and rounded out the meal.
VERDICT: El Venezolano is the best starting point for the cuisine we could have asked for, and they set a high bar for many of the key dishes.
UP NEXT: This cuisine is just starting to establish its place in Toronto’s culinary mosaic, and I’m here for it.
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