On an unseasonably hot day, I sludge my way to Hackney Central for a pop-up. A Venezuelan restaurant on a tropical night like this? Okay, I’ll bite.
Oslo Hackney, the live music venue permanently squatting in the burrowed-out shell of the old railway station, turns 10 next year. We are celebrating a year early with food from husband-and- wife Gus and Kathe Salguero and their labour of love, Arepa & Co.
I’m not sure quite how this works, but three weeks of the restaurant trading quietly have culminated in a big press event. Enter canapes, teenage TikTokers, and little old me, salivating over vibrant sauces.
As my friend and I peeled ourselves off the leather sofas and surreptitiously tilt the big silver fan on the floor in our direction, we have time to appraise the surroundings.
The high, ecclesiastic ceilings are the only hint of the Victorian railway grandeur of the building’s past. Rickety wood tables and industrial pipes set the décor very much in the East-London-but-where bracket.
Blasting reggae, 90s hip-hop and funky 70s soul blare out, and expect neon banana signs and displays of untouched vinyls. It has the faintly liminal feel of a venue that is accustomed to hosting many more people who are not there for food. But we aren’t here for one of Oslo’s many auditory experiences, or even the cooling classic cocktails (which are pretty darn good, and welcomingly frigid). No, my friends we are here, for nourishment of the digestive kind.
After starting life as a market stall in Camden, Arepa & Co now boasts four branches across the city. I salute their efforts to put Venezuelan food on the London map – following in the successful footsteps of Peruvian and Brazilian cuisines.
The repeated players in this game are plantain, the savoury sibling of the banana, black beans like little varnished pebbles of flavour, mashed avocado, pulled meats, and a spot of pastry. Yuca and coconut milk add a tropical twist – that’s what having a coast on the Caribbean Sea will do for you.
Arepas, the traditional maize delicacy that resemble a Venus fly trap, predates the Venezuela’s Spanish colonial influence. Sandwich? They chuckle at this dry, lifeless thing in Caracas! Depth of flavour, richness, and a polenta-like sturdiness make these possibly the most filling food cradles I have tried.
Take your lettuce wraps, I want to eat arepas, and to hell with the bloat.
Fill them with mayo and avocado, cheddar, chicken that is fired to a double death, guava chipotle glaze, shredded beef, black beans, or more plantain. Eat them hot or cold, make them vegetarian, make them vegan if you want by removing the cheese.
Del Conuco is the fully vegan option, with the glory that is pico de gallo (salsa but coming out kicking), charred apple sauce and corn.
Fair warning: these are not well-behaved wraps. They will reduce you to hunkering over the box, crab-like, mushing the sensational fillings into your trap. Give in to it, it’s easier.
The arepas are all reasonably priced at under £10 (and I only needed one). Add a side or two and maybe a bowl and that’s you for the night. Arepa & Co is a pretty wallet-friendly evening. Dare I say cheap?
Bowls come in a wide range of ingredients but all with the same floorplan. Rice, ringed by scattered jewels of black beans, or crisp fired plantain, chicken and mayo, shredded pork shoulder or sweet potatoes, avocado, and cheese.
Simple, effective, and pretty in the repeated hues of orange, black and white, with neon flashes of green.
All of the above is enjoyable, if a little heavy going, but it’s the starters where things get interesting.
Tequeños, fluffy little cheese rolls that beg to be ripped open. Christening them in the accompanying sweet guava dip will make you wonder if you’ve accidentally ordered a dessert before the mains (sinful).
Toston Pernil/Avo is plantain again, but this time used as a cracker-like disk (crostini if you’re fancy), layered with chilli mayo, pulled pork, or avocado mash for the vegans.
Pastelitos, little Cornish pasty rivals, with their interiors of steaming fragrant beef and salsa verde to cool you down.
Yuca fries are another option, or you could enjoy a plate of sweet fried chicken, or even more plantain in the form of tajadas, spring onion circles of pure pleasure.
With such a satisfying cuisine that is certainly bang for your buck, I would say less is more. Take a smattering of starters, none of which are more than £8, then either share a bowl or have an arepa each. Finish off with chocolate tequeños if you have space left. A perfect evening.
Well, is anything truly perfect? Despite the grand event and the joy of a full belly, there are still some kinks to be worked out as this residency finds its feet.
If they desire to become a destination for food as well as live music, (recyclable) disposable containers are not the way to go.
Furthermore, in dealing with the flood of influencers and greedy press types like me, confusion ensued in the kitchen. In the stampede, a couple of veggie arepas featured a touch more pork than most vegetarians would be pleased with.
But for an evening filling up on a neglected cuisine in a boisterous ex-railway station in central Hackney – preparation for throwing yourself around a very sweaty room while listening to the next Arctic Monkeys – try Arepa & Co.