Split the arepa and make a sandwich at La Taguara.
Is Madison gaining enthusiasm for restaurants serving the cuisines of Latin America? Within the last year, we lost the short-lived Punta Cana (Dominican) and the even shorter-lived Smiley's II (Colombian), and the pan-Latin eatery A La Brasa has suddenly gone Mexican. But Cafe Costa Rica has been around for a long while, as has Samba Brazilian Grill, and we now have three restaurants serving Peruvian (Inka Heritage, Crandall's and Surco Peruvian). So is this an auspicious time for La Taguara, Madison's first (and Wisconsin's only current) Venezuelan restaurant?
La Taguara has taken over the former site of Dimitri's Gyros on East Washington Avenue and transformed the bare-bones space into a modest but cheerful dining room where someone might actually hang around to eat dinner. A flat screen was showing silent travel videos of Venezuela my first visit there, and the national pride is evident.
What should you know about Venezuelan food? First off, it's not Mexican food -- though the menu bows to that probably inevitable American misperception by offering tacos. They're okay, but order something else.
It's a meat-centric menu, with lots of beef and some pork, chicken and fish. (Vegetarians will likely end up with cheese and beans or cobbling something together; vegans will be hard-pressed.) Arepas and empanadas are made with a white cornmeal that has a milder corn flavor than Mexican masa bases and a more rubbery interior -- though that's an interesting contrast to the pleasantly crisp and bumpy crust.
And it's not a spicy cuisine. Some palates might even register it as bland, though rather comforting, with its emphasis on beans, rice, fried eggs and plantains.
La Taguara features the Venezuelan national dish pabellon: shredded beef with sides of black beans, rice and deep fried plantains. The shredded beef is rich and deeply flavored like a Mexican barbacoa. This plate isn't super adventurous, but it's not likely to turn off the average carnivore, either.
The bandejita paisa, a meat-heavy platter, comes with a decent slice of fried steak, a slice of crispy pork belly, a chunk of house-made chorizo and a sunny-side-up fried egg, with white rice, pinto beans, plantains and a plain arepa. The thin steak looks unattractive, but on my visit it was well seasoned and mostly tender. Although the pork belly is not the melting delight found at an eatery like Graze, it is crispy (and very salty). The homemade chorizo is the highlight here; not the greasy spicy Mexican version, this sausage is rustic and chunky, dry and mildly seasoned.
The mojito en coco, or finely minced fish with coconut sauce, makes a stew that can be mixed with the rice or scooped up with plantain patties. Mojito en coco reminded me somewhat of a dish of catfish and coconut milk at Lao Laan Xang. That felt disconcerting at first, but less so after considering the similar ingredients in both.
The house-made empanadas make a great snack or lunch. The ground beef filling is like that in a loosemeats sandwich -- extremely finely ground seasoned hamburger. The pastelitos are similar to the empanadas, but made with a wheat instead of a cornmeal crust.
The real star of Venezuelan cuisine, and what will elevate most any dish on the menu, is the green sauce called guasacaca. Usually made with avocado, parsley, cilantro, onions, oil, vinegar and maybe some green bell pepper and lime juice, guasacaca is the comma that unites the meats, rice and beans of most of the entrees. It's the exclamation point that brings out their flavors. Use it as a dip for a plantain or an arepa, pour it into each bite of an empanada. Tangier than guacamole, and more herbal, guasacaca more closely resembles Peruvian green sauce. If your dish does not come with a side of guasacaca, ask for some. If your dish does come with a side of guasacaca, ask for more.
La Taguara offers a number of satisfying and inexpensive lunch specials that combine an arepa, empanadas or pastelitos with the soup of the day or a side salad. Opt for the soup and this is one of the most interesting munches on the East Wash corridor (specials run 11 a.m.-2 p.m.).
Arepas can be configured like sandwiches (try the shredded chicken, beef or pork fillings); sandwiches can be also made with plantains, with the same choice of fillings. A hamburger comes with a fried egg, ham, bacon, cheese and potato strings. There's also a Venezuelan hot dog (with cabbage and guasacaca, brilliant), and the pabellon can come as a burrito-style wrap.
La Taguara is a friendly spot in an area of town that could use more restaurants with interesting menus and homemade love in the kitchen. Bienvenido, Venezuela.