Recently the daily deal coupon I receive in my Inbox was for a $19 all you can eat Venezuelan feast in Fitzroy. Now, I am not well versed in the cuisine of South America, so this was the perfect opportunity to acquire some Latino culture. Now a feat like this is not one that I would dare endure on my own so I rounded up a gang of bandidos from work and we headed to Cruzao Arepa Bar on a rainy Wednesday night in July.
My colleagues braved the cold and walked from our office in the CBD to Fitzroy. This turned out to be quite a rewarding stroll, without the issues of traffic jams and parking that I faced as I had brought my car into the city that day. Needless to say they arrived before me and another work mate who decided to keep me company as I cursed at slow moving traffic and red lights all the way there.
Cruzao Arepa Bar is a lot smaller than I had imagined. A quaint little Fitzroy bar style restaurant with a backdrop of bare-faced brick walls with a dimly lit ambience. Despite making a booking they had not set up a table for our group of 8 and from the floor layout it seemed quite daunting to configure a table for eight without constraining thoroughfare for the service staff and toilet goers. Somehow we squeezed in and it was clear that it was going to be a fairly intimate affair.
Dining service is split into two sessions and on this occasion we were on the 6pm slot. The next one would have been an 8pm start but this would have been too late to wait and way too many alcoholic beverages before it would have been dinner time. The all you can eat feast was due to be served to our tables soon, so what better way to kill time but to indulge in Cruzao's alcoholic concoctions served by the jug. The thirsty bunch, parched after a tough day in the office indulged in jugs of the good stuff: Cuba Libre – where dark rum was the hero; Mojito – classic minty fresh; and Mango Bajito – something tropical and very mangoey!! These delicious cocktails could have probably been washed down by the jug, each by the very competent aficionados seated at our table. Moderation, however needed to be exercised as it was a work night and the meal had not arrived yet. Also at $34 a jug it may get pricey
After a rather long wait the first entrée came out – Arepitas is what our frantically busy host called them – these were deep-fried versions of the corn and cheese Arepa which we were to meet in the main course. These fritters were served with a small bowl of Guasacaca – spicy avocado salsa (not Guacamole!!!) The mini arepas had a great crispy texture with a soft cornmeal centre. The avocado salsa was almost the perfect accompianment until our table was presented with a canister of chilli salsa – Oh yeah! Now it was a real party!!!
Round 2 of the entrée bout was a selection of Venezuelan tapas – now these were quite different to any tapas of the Spanish kind that I had tasted before. There definitely was an emphasis on potatoes and their other starchy cousins. Yuca Frita – chunky fat chips made from cassava. Papita Criolla - bite size whole roasted sweetish Chats (baby potatoes!). Tostones - Plantain fritters with a fetta and aioli crumble – and knowing that bananas were a highly priced fruit in our markets – these were eaten with delicate respect. To finish off the platter, a nice bowl of Chorizo, Venezuelan style with salsa de maiz (corn) – not as spicy as the Spanish variety but definitely worthy. Tapas does translate to morsels, and morsels do get quickly quickly devoured by our crew. Pretty soon we were eating the chilli salsa by itself. Our host asked if we wanted another round of tapas, which we thought was a rhetorical question. Bring it on…again!!
Ok entrées aside and tastebuds very much satisfied the thirst kicks in and the next jug of something something is brought out with an exotic name like Guarapita – you know it’s gonna be good. Dark Rum, passionfruit and Grenadine makes for a good combo. It was time for the mains and what better way to start than with an introduction to the Arepa from our resident Venezuelan host. Arepas are gluten free corn pockets – although most of us found it hard to create a pocket from them and ended up breaking them or splitting them much like an English Muffin.
Nevertheless the bread was in motion and now to the fillings. Cruzao has an extensive menu of fillings ranging from clasicas – shredded beef, sweet chilli chicken, grated cheese; to especiales – pork leg with tomato and haloumi, black bean with avocado and plantain. They come in little ramekins and you fill your arepas with these, to your best ability. There was more of the Guacacasa and yes…more chilli salsa. I think we went through two canisters much to the waiting staff's surprise.
Keeping in mind that it was an all you can eat offer we were sure to indulge in another smaller serve of the above, just to be sure.
If we thought that there was not much left to eat, we were wrong as we had forgotten about dessert. Cruzao delivers with its after dinner sweet menu unlike some unmentionable places - does not let you down with tinned fruit and store bought ice cream. Of the dishes that we tried the Quesillo was a favourite – a delicate flan made with corn, it had a grainy texture and you could taste the fresh ground corn in it.
Crema Tropical was fruit mousse de Venezuala and the Arroz Con Leche was reminiscent of a rice pudding with cinnamon garnish. These were of different tropical flavours and were light and well balanced.
Most intriguing was the Tres Leches, which was a sponge cake soaked in three types of milk. Disputing whether it was cow’s, goat’s and some other domesticated herd animal, we were set straight by the waitress revealing to us that the three milks were, full cream, condensed and evaporated…”Oh I see those milks”.
All in all the Cruzao experience was well enjoyed by all. Although they are not set up for big groups, they will still squeeze you in. The cuisine and atmosphere however, is better enjoyed in a group. If you are there on a weekend or even the 8pm services you may be lucky enough to be entertained by a variety of different music acts that they feature on selected nights. How they fit a stage in that tiny front of house is amazing! But it all is characteristic of the charm in the hustle and bustle and crazy shenanigans of Cruzao Arepa Bar.
Whilst we dined with coupons entitling us to all you can eat for a mere $19, the standard price is $55 – which can be deemed as somewhat steep but it is all you can eat. In this case, rather, it is all you can eat, that can be possibly served to your table, within the time you have allocated (2 hours), for your dinner service. A better option may be to order a la carte, which is available, and stick to dishes that you know. Of the food that we sampled there was not a single one that got a bad review from our group of diners, so rest assured, you won’t be at a loss.