*Opens door* Hello? Anyone still here? Well, for those of you still around and searching for my latest restaurant review, look no further! Welcome back to Mastication Monologues, and it truly has been too long. I’m in my final quarter of my graduate speech pathology program, and for once I found some time to write a post about a cuisine that is often overlooked in the pantheon of Latin cuisine: Venezuelan food. Although Venezuela is typically known for their beauty queens winning Miss Universe, their political turmoil, or Fred Armisen’s portrayal of an obnoxious Venezuelan ambassador on Parks and Rec, their food really should be their most famous export. Today I will be reviewing a wonderful Venezuelan restaurant called BienMeSabe located at 1637 W Montrose Ave, Chicago, IL 60613.
“Bienmesabe” literally translates to “It tastes good to me”. My wife and I were saying that and more throughout our entire experience at this wonderful paradoxically hidden yet well known gem to the locals and Venezuelan baseball players and managers like Ozzie Guillen, Miguel Montero, and Carlos Zambrano. The restaurant is run by Chef Pedro Ron, a professionally trained chef from the Culinary Institute of Caracas, who has owned restaurants in Venezuela and in the USA. Even before we entered the restaurant, we admired their homage to their indigenous populations on the side of the restaurant outside. Their charming patio was calling our name in addition to their extensive menu. On his third voyage to the Americas, Christopher Colombus regarded Venezuela as a “paradise on earth”, and the country has been blessed with a bounty of assorted produce and various ingredients that are the result of a melange of indigenous, Spanish, Italian, and African flavors as highlighted throughout their menu. We started our meal with drinks. BienMeSabe offers your typical soft drinks but also fruit smoothies and Venezuelan beverages. Naturally, I went for the most authentic drink possible recommended by our waiter, and I ended up getting a small chicha or a rice milk smoothie ($5.75 small/$11.75 large). The word “chicha” has a murky origin since it can be found in various forms from Mexico to Argentina, but the Royal Spanish Academy states that it most likely comes from the word “chichab” or “corn” in the Panamanian indigenous Kuna language. The Venezuelan version relies on rice that is boiled and mixed with milk, condensed milk, and cinnamon which results in a rich, creamy vanilla milkshake/horchata-esque beverage that is poured over ice. It would be a great drink on a hot summer day. We were quite hungry that day, so we wanted to get an appetizer. We eventually landed on the tostones from the Spanish verb “tostar” or “to toast” ($7.25). These twice fried plantains hit the spot. They were nestled beneath a comforter of Caribbean cheese, crema, slightly spicy chili sauce, and green onions. If you’re looking for a savory, salty, yet light treat, these would be great right next to a cool beer. It was then time for the main course: las arepas! Structurally, an arepa is like the love child of an English muffin and a tortilla. It has a maize base and the heft of an English muffin minus the nooks and crannies. Plus, it is one of the few aspects of Venezuelan cuisine that has remained unchanged since pre-Colombian times and is still popular to this day. Currently, 70% of Venezuelans eat arepas for at least one of their meals as a side, and they function like bread for sandwiches typically. BienMeSabe has a great variety of ingredients, both for meat lovers and vegans, to fill their homemade arepas. I decided to go with the more authentic bochinche (Venezuelan Spanish for “a loud social gathering”) arepa ($13.95). I could see why its name was apt because it was a house party packed with chunks of sausage, plantains, homemade cheese, and fresh avocado slices. Talk about an interesting guest list! From the first bite, I was ready to join the fiesta. The sausages were covered in a chili sauce that had a low and slow burn that was balanced with the cool, more neutral cheese and savory avocado. The plantains provided occasionally sweet notes to the mainly savory meal but were not out of place. The garlic sauce on the side were the perfect compliment to the sausages. The best part was that the arepa held up to some serious munching a large amount of ingredients in a small package. I couldn’t say the same as some burgers or tacos that I’ve tried in the past. If you’re not in the mood for arepas, BienMeSabe also has salads, burger, traditional grilled Venezuelan meats, and fish entrees.
Overall, I highly recommend BienMeSabe if you’re tired of typical tacos and burritos and want to experience freshly made Venezuelan cuisine in cozy surroundings.