The people have spoken. This year’s Best Restaurant for Downtown & the Strip District isn’t an $80 per plate steak restaurant or a long-time fine dining institution: it’s Arepittas, a Venezuelan street food concept that offers hearty fare in a no-frills space beneath a parking garage on the site of a former Primanti Bros.
Anyone who winds up Downtown for work or play can attest that finding a place to eat that’s affordable and craveable can be a tough nutritional needle to thread. And while I love a spendy dining moment for date nights and “treat yourself” occasions, a regular spot that’s nutritious, delicious, and won’t break the bank is worth its weight in golden-brown empanadas.
If I only had one bite of Arepittas to recommend to a first-time customer, it would be a Pabellón empanada, a kind of grab-bag of quintessential Venezuelan flavors like shredded beef, cheese, tajadas (plantains), and caraotas (black beans). Doused in their bright and zingy hot sauce, one empanada is satisfying enough to sustain you through a trip to the downtown DMV, but two is a party, and there’s something for everyone: options range from chorizo and cheese to a seafood mix, with vegetarian choices like the domino (beans and cheese) empanada, too.
The namesake and cornerstone of Arepittas are arepas, grilled corn flour cakes that pre-date Spanish colonization of South America and are popular in Venezuela, Colombia, and elsewhere. They can be served as is or sliced and stuffed with any number of fillings, and variations span across regions. Arepittas offers just-grilled plain arepas, but really showcases their creativity with their stuffed arepas, which come artfully and necessarily wrapped in foil to prevent a potential volcanic loss of ingredients. Some fillings are traditional like Sifrina (grilled chicken and chunky avocado salsa), and others more whimsical, like the Capressa arepas, sporting all the ingredients of a caprese salad. However they stuff them, it’s a fist-sized serving of food that earns the distinction of being “stick to your ribs” without being cloying.
Arepittas also swept the Latin, gluten-free, and vegan menu categories of this year’s Best of PGH, offering vegan chorizo and many vegetable-forward fillings like beef-free pabellon and sides of tajadas and mojito criollo, described on their menu as “Venezuelan pico de gallo.” And because their arepas and empandas are made with corn meal and not wheat flour, they’re also excellent for gluten-free eating, which can often be a challenge when looking for a quick bite.
As if that weren’t enough to get excited about, Arepittas has a whole menu of Venezuelan specialty beverages, including Papelon con limon, often called Venezuelan lemonade, made with minimally processed sugar cane, and Malta Maltin Polar, a refreshing non-alcoholic beer made of barley and corn. Horchata fans will recognize the flavor profiles of Chicha Criolla, a rice drink made with condensed milk, sugar, and aromatic spices, and PSL girlies will rejoice at the seasonal pumpkin chicha on offer.
It's easy to see why Arepittas was a heavy-hitter in this year’s Best of PGH. The accessible price point is exciting (when was the last time you got a special little drink for under $5?), but beyond that, it’s tasty food with real cultural ties, presented in an unfussy and approachable manner for everyone to enjoy as they go about their day in downtown Pittsburgh.
Arepittas. 412 Cherry Way, Downtown. arepittas.com