Leave it to La Taguara, Madison's newest South American restaurant, to convert the inconvertible.
These days, my picky, carb-loving 12-year-old is the last person to try a meal that doesn't come from a drive-thru and rhyme with "shmextra shmalue shmeal."
But circumstances conspired to send me with my household's culinary curmudgeon to La Taguara for a weekend lunch, to which he reacted as though I'd offered him a root canal.
An hour later, he left the place grinning from ear to ear (hey, the kid has dimples!). We were surprised and delighted by the dishes we shared for lunch, as well as the help from our charming and knowledgeable host.
Jeykell Badell, who opened La Taguara in August, shepherded us through the menu and helped us select our lunches with the skill of a veteran matchmaker who knows his cuisine and his clientele. We entered knowing next to nothing about Venezuelan food and departed with full stomachs and a solid introduction to a menu that warrants further exploration.
I decided to try the pabellon, billed as the Venezuelan National Dish ($12.99). I received a heaping plate of black beans layered with shreds of white cheese, shredded beef and rice, then topped with three thick, perfectly-fried slices of plantain and an arepa — a fried corn cake that seems to function in Venezuelan cuisine much as a tortilla does in Mexico.
The arepa was a starchy, fried corn cake about the size of a drink coaster. It had an impressive capacity for soaking up sauce once it cooled down from its serving temperature: straight-from-the-frying-pan hot.
The whole ensemble was tasty and filling, enough for two meals.
Badell steered my son towards the arepas sold as sandwiches for $4.99 apiece with fillings, including cheeses, beans, ham, various shredded or ground meats (picadillo salad is made with ground beef, olives and raisins) and potato chicken salad.
We ordered two on Badell's recommendation: one stuffed with pernil (pork roast) and the other with shredded chicken and mayonnaise (my son's choice). In each dish we tried, the beef, pork and chicken were all tender and well-seasoned, flecked with colorful bits of red and green pepper and flavorful enough to eat on their own.
The two arepas my son ordered were larger than the ones on my plate, split open like pocket pitas to hold their fillings. Although the corn cakes lack the elasticity of a flour tortilla, they somehow manage to contain large amounts of stuff without splitting their seams.
Guasacaca sauce — a Venezuelan guacamole made with green peppers and fresh herbs —was a perfect accompaniment. Its green color comes from cilantro, not from chilis, so my son was able to ladle it onto his arepas with impunity despite his tame palate.
I'm hanging onto the menu that Badell marked up for us, indicating the dishes he most enthusiastically wanted me to try with stars and numbers. We still haven't tried the empanadas or the yucca fries, and the La Taguara burger we spotted at a nearby table looked like an epic, messy treat.
The Venezuelan food we had at La Taguara combined familiar Latin American ingredients with enough new sazon (flavor) to pique the interest of both a food-obsessed mom and a picky preteen.
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