I do not have an abuela. I had one no-nonsense, meat-and-potatoes, German grandma and another who lived off a steady diet of brie cheese and Manhattans. Some may say this thusly allots me no authority to speak on Venezuelan food, which is fairly niche when it comes to Latin cuisine. I beg to differ. Because I have no abuela, I have no preconceived notions of home cooking to cloud my judgment. That said, even if I had been raised on a certain flavor or technique when it came to Venezuelan food, I am sure I would have fallen equally in love with Chamo Venezuelan Cuisine’s pockets of joy (aka arepas and empanadas).
Chamo opened its first location just seven weeks ago, but based on the established e-presence, perfected customer service and clean branding, you would guess it had been there ages. And still, despite being so polished, the food is still clearly full of heart and the atmosphere is akin to a friendly, homey cantina. This is all thanks to the shop being run by a family experienced in the service industry. Lourdes Cuello Pernia — the proverbial abuela of the establishment — graciously lends her recipes to the public, while daughters Yesika and Yelitza run the front with their extensive restaurant and hospitality know-how.
But it’s not just the image and warmth that keep customers coming back to Chamo. It is, of course, the food.
The menu is relatively limited, offering arepas, empanadas and just a few additional items, but these few things Chamo does with excellence. Yesika told me she and the Chamo team come early every morning to make everything from scratch. Pasadena health inspectors didn’t believe her when she showed them her one freezer. “Where are the rest?” they asked. No need. And we are all better off for it.
For those unfamiliar, an arepa is a sort of corn pancake stuffed with any number of things — usually meat, cheese, beans or a combination of the aforementioned. What sounds simply like a tamale in sandwich form is actually one of God’s gifts to mankind. Well, at least Chamo makes arepas seem that way. The Pernia family’s expert hands slap that corn batter down on a griddle in a way that adds a perfect layer of crunch to the outside while puffing up the inside just enough to absorb the plentiful juices of succulent meat fillings without becoming soggy. A self-contained handful of joy these arepas are. I may not have an abuela, but my German G-ma taught me the value of a perfect pot roast, and that’s precisely what was nestled inside the organic asado negro arepa.
Of course, many more fillings abound. Vegetarians can enjoy a variety of cheeses, chicken lovers are satiated with juicy and flavorful pollo en salsa roja, and then there’s my personal favorite: carne mechada. All too often, the natural decadence of red meat is taken for granted; countless taquerias fail to spice it up knowing it will be a top seller regardless. Not Chamo. An enormous, piping hot empanada shell embraced the spiced-in-heaven carne mechada which in turn saturated the doughier inside with savory goodness. The intermingling deep-fried crispiness and slow-cooked succulence made for an incredible empanada, but I would be equally as happy with an arepa for a more substantial meal. Heck, I’d be equally as happy eating the carne mechada off the floor.
Now, if one is to order cheese at Chamo – and I suggest one do so – there is no real wrong choice. There are, however, two superior options. Number one: Empanada de queso. Even the first and last bites of Chamo’s empanadas, the crispy edges devoid of filling, are delicious. The dough is more than just a necessary vehicle; it is a subtly sweet and delicate envelopment mechanism. In the case of empanadas de queso, this compliments a hefty filling of salty, pleasantly funky cheese in that sweet-salty combination that just cannot be beat. On to superior cheese choice No. 2 — tequeños. I am tempted to describe these morsels as the Venezuelan equivalent of mozzarella sticks, but I believe this to be an affront to tequeños, Venezuela and food as a whole. Mozzarella sticks are a crumbly, greasy excuse to shovel marinara sauce into one’s mouth. They turn back into the sad string cheese of lunchboxes past four seconds into sitting on a plate. Tequeños, on the other hand, are melty little tubes of queso lovingly wrapped in dough as flaky and buttery as pie crust. Eat them as they are or dip them in one of Chamo’s creamy garlic sauces (with or without spice, though I suggest with). As far as I’m concerned, there is no wrong way to love a tequeña.
I’m usually a girl who loves vegetables at the forefront of her meals, but despite Chamo’s protein- and starch-forward menu, I was left wanting for nothing. Something about the freshness of the ingredients and their impeccable balance of textures and flavors was enough. Still, a refreshing glass of papelón con limón (lemonade made with condensed cane sugar) will lighten any bite right up.
Chamo is a perfect place for nearby businessmen and women to stop in for a fulfilling lunch break. Maybe spice up your cheap date at the Regency Academy Cinemas across the street by sneaking in a couple empanadas instead of succumbing to the hot dog special in the theater lobby. Be the envy of your peers and pick up an arepa between classes at PCC. Personally, I’ll be looking for more excuses to go back soon. The arepas, empanadas, tequeños, yucca, hallacas, plántanos, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera have become mis chamos (my kids).
Chamo Venezuelan Cuisine
950 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena | (626) 639-3399
chamovenezuelancuisine.com| Major Cards/No Alcohol