Hola Arepa blooms in south Minneapolis
Manager Christina Nguyen and owner Birk Stefan Grudem
Benjamin Carter Grimes for City Pages
Basing an entire business on a single food item is a risky choice, but it's one that's really paid off for Hola Arepa owners Birk Stefan Grudem and Christina Nguyen, whose now-iconic aqua blue truck has been slinging arepas and collecting all kinds of awards since they launched it in 2011. It seemed inevitable that Hola Arepa, an undisputed fan favorite, would join the ranks of places like Smack Shack and Foxy Falafel and spin their meals on wheels into a full-fledged restaurant. But could the humble arepa function as the backbone of a stand-alone bricks-and-mortar operation in south Minneapolis?
Yes, as it turns out. Venezuela's most popular street food, a flat, usually griddled corn cake, is flexible: It can be served loaded up like a tostada or, less commonly, treated like pocket bread and stuffed with eggs in the morning, shredded meats and beans for lunch and dinner, and jam or jelly for dessert. Arepas are so ubiquitous in Venezuela that they sell portable electric grills to make them at home — sort of a George Foreman for corn cakes. And to the delight and relief of many a Celiac sufferer, the arepas made at Hola are gluten-free. In fact, almost everything on the menu is — but check for those little asterisks if you're hypersensitive.
As you may have gathered, corn is all over the place on this menu. From apps to dessert, Hola is out to showcase the versatility of this bumper crop. Start with the arepitas — lightly fried arepa dough filled with chèvre and chopped peppers, and served with quince jam. The effect is like a mash-up of arancini, jalapeño poppers, and apple pie with a slice of cheddar cheese on top. A more elegant small plate that would easily work as a light vegetarian entree is the shiitake cachapas, a sweeter, doughier corn cake that's loaded with shiitake mushrooms, huitlacoche — a.k.a "corn smut," a fungus that's regarded as a delicacy in Latin countries — creamy dollops of chèvre, truffle oil, and a wobbly, just barely poached egg. Tortilla chips are homemade and perfectly salty, and the salsas, particularly the Hola Sauce, were all bang-on. We also liked the quesillo salad, which contained what looked to be yellow cherry tomatoes, but were in fact slices of quince. There's plenty of crunch and acidity in this salad, the sweetness of the fruit brings a much needed balance, and the cheese curds on top might even convince you that grilled cheese is better than fried.
Not that anyone has to pick a favorite arepa, but the shredded beef and plantain version will win most hearts. It performs the lofty task of representing all the important flavors and textures you'll find in the other arepas. There's juicy, slightly spicy meat, a salty, pungent cheese, the bright acidity and crunch of pickled onions, and the mushy sweetness of the plantains. A close second, the slow-roasted pork with black beans, gets a boost from that mysterious, amazing Hola Sauce. For more Americanized tastes or expectations, the chimichurri chicken arepa with sliced chicken breast, sandwich-ready toppings (lettuce and tomato), and a mild and creamy chimichurri, is almost like a chicken club. Vegetarians and vegans will have plenty to choose from as well, especially if they love black beans, which we're told is a prerequisite.
Before Hola Arepa, it seemed unlikely that anyone in town would be able to unseat Brasa for, well, just about anything they do. But the yucca fries at Hola Arepa — roughly the size and shape of Jenga pieces — have been perfected to high art. You may find yourself wondering why anyone eats French fries when they could be having these. They're miraculously ungreasy with a fluffy, fibrous filling. Simply dressed salad greens are the other side option, if you insist on pretending you're too health conscious for deep-fried roots.
The space, previously home to ghost-town Mexican restaurant El Paraiso, is a tailor-made setting for the food. Indoors, the casual cantina is accented with aqua chairs, reclaimed wood, and Edison bulbs, but the patio is where you really want to enjoy your Hola Arepa experience, especially the cocktails. The bar program, backed by bearded bartender and bitters-maker of note Dan Oskey, is one of the main additions to Nyugen and Birk's business. Their team expands on the Latin-by-way-of-Midwest concept with a fun, fresh, not-totally tropical take on beverages. A titillating rum-based Old Fashioned is finished with a dash of smoky Scotch; a World Cup-approved concoction pairs cachaca with a bracing bit of Aperol; and three words induce eye-popping excitement: toasted coconut bitters.
They're also keeping up with the custom-made bottled cocktails trend that's been big for the past few years, a smart move as bottled cocktails benefit both bartender and barstool-sitter in terms of serving time. (As an important bonus, they're adorable.) Most drinks on the menu tend toward the seasonally appropriate tart end of the spectrum, but it's the sweet, simple fernet and homemade cola that is sure to become their boozy, root beer-like signature.
If the arepas have failed to stuff you to the gills, finish your corn feast off with the corn cookie ice cream sandwich, which sounded weird and was, as our server put it "impossible to eat while still looking cute," but was extremely, habit-formingly delicious. The sweet-and-salty butterscotch, Frito, and corn nut cookies are what you'd get if you took all the forbidden junk foods from the kitchen and challenged yourself to combine them into one dish. The ice cream filling is what you would add if you were also an evil genius, or possibly stoned. We liked the rhubarb pavlova too, with its pretty-in-pink fragile meringue topping and seasonal fruit, but an ice cream sandwich is summer vacation. A pavlova is a trip to Montreal to stay with your very old aunt.
We gladly greet Hola Arepa with a cheerful hello in any language, and can only imagine how hopping this patio is about to be for the rest of the summer. Turn up on the early side for your best chances at snagging a seat, or wait until after 10 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday nights when Hola offers $3.50 tap beers and a slew of arepas for $7.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.