I had my first arepas in Chicago. The city was new to me, mine for the span of one-month’s sublet. So after work I’d walk, learning the “L” train’s overhead rumble and the softer rattle of leaves in the wind.
Hungry one night, unsure what for, I stopped at a window reading “Torta Arepas” and “Cuban Cafe”. The menu showed arepas as cheap and fillable with savory or sweet options. I ducked inside and met the sound of Spanish-style guitar.
It wasn’t professional entertainment; there were only two men inside, the owner and his guitar-playing friend. He kept playing as I asked about arepas.
The owner held up pita-like bread the shape and consistency of a silver-dollar pancake, made of corn. He coached me how to pronounce it, “ray-pa”, not “reap-a”, and warned he had to make more.
I wasn’t in a hurry, I said, and sat at the counter.
I commented on the cafe’s decor and learned the owner and his family had done it all: hand-tiled the counter, painted the warm teal walls, built the chairs. He pointed out the menu’s fusion of Latin countries, all places I’d yet to visit.
Though he was born-and-raised Chicago, the owner’s heritage was a fusion too. His father came from Mexico, had been a young man in the ’50s there working as a herder with a pistol on one hip and rifle on the other, wearing dress shirts with pinned-up sleeves. Think James Dean, the owner said, but Mexican.
A man came in then to order plain arepas for his two children, a girl of six and a younger boy. The girl had a cat-faced purse, clearly hand-knitted. I told her I liked it, and a floodgates of words loosed- her grandmother made it, she was on the way to her first piano lesson, her brother was this-many years old. Her father apologized, unnecessarily; I was charmed.
She and her brother took the stools around me. I offered the father my seat, but he demurred. He had an accent, from Venezuela, he said, where arepas began. He brought his kids here for the real thing, best around.
The guitarist was good, the girl announced. The guitarist countered the owner was better and handed over the guitar.
The owner riffed, mightily.
Unfazed, the girl asked, could he play jazz? Startled, he switched styles. She kept requesting. Beethoven? He pulled out Für Elise; next, The Entertainer, the “ice cream truck song”.
I talked music, travel, and food with a restaurant owner and a six-year-old until the family left for the lesson. I left full and newly electrified- this, this, was my idea of life.