1200 Carondelet St., New Orleans, 504-523-6247
Three Stars (Out of Four)
Mais Arepas is a new Colombian restaurant that specializes, naturally, in arepas. These are pale-golden cornmeal cakes, a little bit like Central American pupusas, and here they're used all across the menu as sandwiches, as bread to dunk in beans and as vehicles for piles of meat and sauces, like tostadas.
If the prospect of Latin American food at a Central City address conjures up some backstreet joint or greasy spoon, Mais Arepas will surprise you. The look is modern, urbane and tropical all at once, with a big bar decorated by flowers and fruit, folk art on the walls and a cool design worked throughout.
Always friendly and normally efficient, the one hang-up for service here tends to be larger parties, when things go off the rails a bit. It's such a casual place, however, that as long as you keep your patience everyone will still have a nice meal.
First-time visitors should start with the trio of mini arepas. These are like silver dollar pancakes with shredded beef, pulled pork and a mix of chicken and avocado plus three sauces to dab over them all a chunky red pepper spread, an olive oil salsa and another that's like a mild remoulade. This presents a good, quick introduction to the kitchen's style. Empanadas are made in crisp, yellow cornmeal shells (and there's often a vegetarian option) while green plantains are fried into crunchy disks for tostadas de plantanos. Meanwhile, ripe plantains, which are much sweeter, are made into large croquettes and draped with mozzarella cheese.
The short menu here is focused mainly on arepas, which are split and stuffed to create unique sandwiches. One of my favorites is the carnicera: slices of rare, flavorful skirt steak, avocado, sticky fried plantains and beans. There's a breakfast sandwich version (although the restaurant isn't open in the morning), which combines eggs, ham and salsa, and a few seafood options, like the marinera, with shrimp and a citrus slaw, or the occasional fried oyster special. Chunks of hard chorizo and mozzarella go into the chori-arepa and the Reina is a chicken sandwich bursting with avocado. Another good option is the soup, called ajiaco, which is a potato based potage with avocado and a little shredded chicken, thickened up with cream and strewn with fresh cilantro and tart little capers. The grand option, however, is called the bandeja paisa (a 'country platter'), which is a Colombian-style mixed grill with portions of skirt steak, dense and spicy chorizo, a large hunk of chicharron, fried egg, plantains and avocado, plus, of course, arepas.
The desserts are short and simple here -- tres leches cake is normally the only choice, and it is a good finale after the rich meal.
The bar stocks a small assortment of wines, most of which are South American, plus beers, and they will mix a handful of specialty drinks, like a rum cocktail with crushed mint.
Mais Arepas feels a little too expensive for what you get. The arepas, after all, are essentially sandwiches with plantain chips scattered on the side, and they ring in for $12 to $14. The country platter is $20. It's a cool and novel place, which takes the string out of it, but it's not exactly cheap either.
Mais Arepas brings an interesting and hearty style of South American cooking to the table for New Orleans. It's a great new addition for its neighborhood, and makes a worthwhile destination restaurant for people curious about this type of cooking, or for those already hooked on it.