Venezuela On The North Shore

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris June 23, 2022 10:00 in Dining Diary

As it has so often happened over the last nearly 34 years of the radio show (airs weekdays 2-4 990AM), a caller suggested we try a new place on the Northshore that he liked rather well. Avila Grill is a Venezuelan restaurant in the space that housed Neely’s Pizza on Hwy 22 in Mandeville.

As with Mediterranean food, there are subtle differences in the Latin American culinary culture. How is Brazilian food different from Columbian, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, Guatemalan, and our most familiar, Mexican food?

I have a suspicion: the reason we prefer “Mexican” food to these others is that it has been so Americanized. It’s familiar. My apologies to my Northshore neighbors for sneering at their culinary bona fides. I gave Habaneros no chance of survival because it was too “authentic” Mexican. They now have four or five locations. So who am I to say that this Venezuelan restaurant won’t be a big hit?

It certainly was the day we went. This space is tiny and spartan, stuffed into a strip mall next to a Dollar General.

The place was nearly filled for lunch. A wood wall was offset by the artificial greenery usually seen in Instagrammable places covering two walls, interspersed with flowers. It was charming.

The kitchen is open but not for viewing. You can see into the kitchen and someone can see you. They greet you from there and come to the table you choose with menus. It is friendly and unassuming.

It was surprising to see how large the menu was. And how “authentic.” We started with an empanada. It was served with a pale green cilantro sauce. This was fresh and delicious. The empanada was not made with flour. It was a small corn cake folded over chicken, which is the filling I chose. The corn encasement threw me for a minute, but this was good. The chicken was well seasoned, and very flavorful.

We also ordered Taquenos, and these threw me too. Cheese wrapped in pastry and fried, these were served with ketchup, which was very Mandeville but I wonder if it exists in Caracas. Exactly as I just described, this was nothing special. Tom liked them.

I ordered a roast pork lunch special with rice and beans, as well as a little salad featuring avocado and what they describe as Mediterranean pico de gallo. This had to be the “safest”, most boring thing on this exotic menu. Baby steps.

It was piled high on the plate, pork sitting on a bed of rice flanked by a cup of delicious black beans. A small salad of mixed greens was buried beneath a pretty avocado half filled with the pico. This was a very tasty plate of food, and I was disappointed in my lack of adventure. When I saw a delivery at the next table I decided to get off the fence and order more, this time real Venezuelan food.

While I waited for order #2, I watched Tom eat his French Quarter Arepas. I have imagined arepas as flour tortillas, puffed up and filled with proteins and vegetables. Think of a taco, but fluffy. But it is a corn pancake, which seems to be the basis of the cuisine, filled with chunks of beef tenderloin cooked in a wine sauce. It had cheese as part of the filling.

Tom seemed to like this rather well. I tried the beef tenderloin, which was quite tender, and the wine sauce flavor was distinctive. This is elevated cuisine from the expected.

When my “authentic” dish arrived, the smell preceded it. It smelled like a bakery. Like a pancake. This chacapas was filled with brisket, as I requested. It was quite large and filled top and bottom with native cheeses, a sour cream distinctly different from our own, and panela cheese, a cow’s milk cheese with a dense texture.

While I did like the brisket inside of the pancake, it was a little too odd for me. And that pretty much sums up the meal for me. More adventurous eaters will very much like the foray into the exotic world of familiar foods from south of the border.

And people like me can also find something to please them. I enjoyed all the predictable things on my plate. There is roast pork, rice, black beans (which used to be exotic, remember?) fresh avocado, and salsa. All the meats like roast pork and brisket and chicken and even shrimp are all things we like, just presented in a different way.

Curious diners should try the corn pancake, or even the green plantain sandwich, where plantain is used in the place of bread. Plantains are used at Avila Grill in many ways, all of which far advance their place as a fried dipper in a chip basket.

There is familiar here, and really exotic, so any adventure level can be satisfied at Avila Grill. The ingredients are of high quality, the service is friendly and helpful as you explore the menu, and the food is good at whatever level you care to experience.

It’s a nice alternative for the day you just can’t do La Carreta again.