From arepas to the Aphrodite, Valencia Luncheria in Norwalk brightens a gray day
I have the answer to a riddle. Where does the population of Norwalk go on a rainy weekend? The answer is inside Valencia Luncheria on Main Street.
It was a shock to walk in out of the gray rain and drizzle and find myself in what seemed to be a south-of-the-border fiesta. Crowds of happy people, waitresses scurrying about with trays loaded with appetizing food and a general sense that all is right with the world, and if it isn’t, maybe a good mojito might help.
I have known about this place since it first opened. I remember it as a tiny lunch-counter cafe so small it was hard to get a seat. I also remember that if the temperature outside was soaring it was uncomfortably hot and stuffy. Back in the day, one chalked it all up to “authentic" because, really, how many Venezuelan beach shacks have central air.
In the new digs, there are plenty of seats, a comfortable climate and most important of all, wonderful food.
The interior is decorated with serapes, hammocks and cheerful folk-art paintings. There is a lively bar with an arrangement of seashells that looked like someone is ready to take them home as vacation souvenirs. It is all very Jimmy Buffet parrothead-like, but with better food than I found in the Florida Keys.
A specialty here are the arepas, a national dish of South America.
An arepa is a round mounded corn cake about the size of a hamburger bun that is split open and either fried or grilled. Once there were (at least before Venezuela went into economic and humanitarian free fall) arepas festivals to see who made the best in the land. The natives take this seemingly simple dish as seriously as we Yankees take our lobster rolls and fried clams. It is everyday food as well as celebration food.
At Valencia Luncheria there are myriad ways to customize the corn cake: an example is the Chicken Tamarillo Arepa which is a split corncake filled with a subtle but well-spiced chicken stew. Also interesting was The Dulce, an odd combination of fennel seed and melted cheese, very original and the sort of thing you could eat for breakfast or lunch. I recommend the Pernil Arepa, filled with tender flakes of slow-roasted pork, and also the Aphrodite (which I ordered just for the name ). This virginal arepa is stuffed with only slices of avocado and mango: a bit underwhelming for the Goddess of Love, but quite tasty.
It seems mangoes and avocados are the backbone of this cuisine. They appear on almost everything. What I give extra credit for is that every mango and avocado I tasted was at the peak of ripeness. In Connecticut, this is hard to find. There are few things more annoying then craving the succulence of a mango and getting a mouthful of cardboard.
There are very many dishes to choose from. Usually this sends up a warning flag to a reviewer of overreach, of a place wanting so hard to please that it offers everything. If you study the menu here more carefully, you will see that most all the dishes are simply different ways of combining the cornerstones of South American cooking. Avocados and mangos, black beans, fried plantains, yellow rice, tortillas, arepas, soft white cheese and oodles of caramel sauce called dulce de leche are creatively kaleidoscoped.
The servers wear t-shirts extolling the house red sauce. I looked on my table, there was no sauce. I looked at my neighbor’s table, no sauce, I looked at a few other tables and saw plastic squeeze bottles half-filled with red sauce and green sauce. I asked for the sauce and it was indeed noteworthy. It fits into the general category of a salsa, and does a great job of elevating the food, not relying only on heat but adding a full rich flavor.
The one problem I have with Valencia Luncheria has nothing to do with the quality of food, the friendly service or the laid back atmosphere. My discomfort is the heavy handedness with which this place flaunts its publicity. Most restaurants post a good review or a Zagat sticker in the window but here, both inside and outside, is repeatedly stenciled the face and autograph of Guy Fieri, the host of the popular TV show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
A while back, Fieri did a segment on this restaurant and since then the place turned itself into a sort of shrine to him. Understand I want small restaurants to get all the help they can. I know running a restaurant is one tough business and very much depends on media and word of mouth.
164 Main St, Norwalk; 203-846-8009
The problem I have is that Valencia Luncheria is superior to anything Guy Fieri ever came up with. If you think this is the opinion of one cranky restaurant critic (me) please Google what New York Times food critic Pete Wells wrote in 2012 about Fieri's “Guy’s American Restaurant and Bar.” Ouch.
Note to Valencia Luncheria: put on your big boy pants and stand on your own merits. You are that good.
Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, co-authored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series with Michael Stern.