Hola Arepa: Latin Cuisine, Refined (Even if You Aren’t)

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I was invited by Cayman Jack to bring a friend and head over to Hola Arepa to experience the joys of Agave nectar margarita with Hola’s creative Latin cuisine, and “joy” would best describe the experience. Cayman Jack certainly pairs well with a sope or 100 too many tortilla chips, and caps off a rough day nicely. It’ll be on my summer liquid soundtrack, for sure.

Once the dishes rolled out, however, the spotlight was stolen by Hola Arepa head chef Christina Nguyen. With a magnetic smile, she introduced course after course of thoroughly enjoyable dishes. I say “creative” because not a single course consisted of a taco or tamale.

It was a taste experience beyond the driver’s seat taco mess or misguided thrill of burning your lips off. There were moments when certain flavors worked together, in a way I’m not accustomed to. I stopped to think a couple of times, and “stop” when eating isn’t a command I heed very often. It made me feel like a polished, classy man at times … until I wasn’t.

At least I didn’t spill a drink on myself.

The Basics: Hola Arepa got its rep on wheels, in the form of a highly-sought-after food truck, and bricked up at 35th and Nicollet in Minneapolis. Hop off the 35th/36th exit from 35W and you’re there. Easy. You can hit holaarepa.com or caymanjack.com for more information.

On a sunny afternoon, provided you’re not ogling across their parking lot at Pat’s Tap, Hola feels beach-housy with its sea-blue interior framing and wooden surfaces with its paint chipped off almost completely. It’s not a big place: Eighteen guests showed up, and just about filled it. We could’ve had 10 more at the bar, and one table was slid aside for the seminar, but not many more would’ve fit.

Tortilla chips and salsas were the first course, and we moved through them like a Peterbilt driving downhill. All five dips were fantastic, including the really hot one and the one with the curious texture (I’m bad with names). Nguyen briefly explained each round before we dug in:

Plantain Sope: I tried lifting this up on one forkful, but refrained when I felt the continent crumbling. I don’t usually think of fruity and citrus when ordering Latin (see above). On a stage in which I’m used to the fire dance, this was a foxtrot. It was a nice first step out of my comfort zone.

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Molote (above): Doesn’t that just look marvelous? It paired especially well with the Cayman because there was alcohol in it and meat was in this molote. I am, at my core, a man of simple needs.

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Bibb Salad: Who knew you had to cut into a salad? I tried to lift a leaf out of this and upturned its entire foundation. Once it finally made its way to my mouth, though, the snap of the apple and watermelon were the first things I identified as going well with the Cayman on a more than elemental level. I felt like a real foodie for once … but then asked for a napkin while my mouth was full by pointing at the napkin of the man sitting beside me. Your move, DeRusha.

Cachapa: This sweet potato corn pancake concoction dismantled itself when I attempted to break a bite off, so I enjoyed the radish slices, shrimp, asparagus, and sweet potato corn separately. Sitting less than five feet away were members of Minneapolis/Paul Magazine, Eater, and Lord-knows-who-else, making this the perfect night to eat like a two-year-old. On the bright side, the next course was something I actually knew how to eat:

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Cochinita-Pibil Sope: My good buddy PORK joined the party, with a posse of radish and cabbage riding in on a sope. On the side came a roasted habanero salsa, and I was already hearing pants of discomfort from others when I slathered mine on. Did I take that a warning? Of course not! It wasn’t that hot, though.

Maybe it was the bar-foodiness of its presentation (looks like a slider, yes?), or the familiarity of the flavors, but Cayman Jack seemed out of place with his one. It wasn’t bad by any means; it’s just, it really made me crave a Miraculum.

Butter Semifreddo: Semifreddo, roasted pineapple, pineapple jerky, and Chex Mix. I was too busy spooning this Heaven cloud empty for note-taking. Just trust me on this one. By the time we left with our swag bags, my shirt was fitting funny and walking was a laborious endeavor. Small plates add up, y’know!

Service was fantastic throughout (all the way down to the staffers’ bandanas, which, when folded correctly, had HOLA in big letters), and it’s frightening to think I didn’t even have their signature item (you know, an arepa). While its location isn’t the greatest, at least for this west metro-loiterer, Hola Arepa just feels like an escape. It’s an escape from what most posers try to pass off as Latin, and it’s a good hiding spot.

Stop back for a bottle of Cayman. Yes, yes I shall.

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