El Rey de las Arepas is really La Reina — the queen. That's Zoraida Gutierrez, from Caracas. Her son Rayner, owner of the first Venezuelan restaurant in the area, says Zoraida begins work every morning at 7 to start on the arepas, cachapas, and pabellones with which the family intends to make its mark on the Southwest Detroit restaurant scene.
In the last year, I've eaten Salvadoran, Honduran, Guatemalan, Puerto Rican, and, needless to say, Mexican, in the neighborhood. All have their charms and their strengths, but none is more charming than tiny El Rey. The handrail and steps leading to the door are painted in the colors of the Venezuelan flag (red, blue, yellow), the walls are brick red, the pretty plates are multicolored, Caribbean music plays gently, the service is ultra-friendly. It's one of those former corner bars from the old days, with the original old-fashioned dark wood bar backed by glass-fronted cabinets (but no license, sadly).
You will definitely be ordering arepas, the Venezuelan version of the empanada (or samosa or pasty). It's ground corn flour shaped into a circle, grilled, split like a biscuit, then filled with whatever you like. It's sort of like a huge English muffin, but with flavor.
Unlike an empanada, the arepa is hard to deal with as a hand-food, because the sides are open, and for some reason the innards don't stay inside as well as in a sandwich. So use a knife and fork as needed.
I first had the mini-arepas as an appetizer, and their texture was perfect: a crisp exterior and fluffy interior, stuffed with white cheese. I can see why Venezuelan ex-pats are driving from Ann Arbor to El Rey — the tactile properties alone are reason enough. The flavor of an arepa can be pretty bland without the house green garlic sauce, but the stuffed versions are marvelous. The menu suggests combinations of cheeses, ham, black beans, or scrambled eggs (pick two for $5.50), or chicken, shredded beef, pork, chicharrones, steak, or chorizo (two for $6.50). Add avocado or tomato if you like. The chorizo was one of the best I've ever had, accomplishing the trick of being quite spicy without being picante (hot). Cubes of pernil (roast pork) are tender and moist, good with slices of avocado.
Another corn-dough dish is the cachapa: a pancake folded in half and stuffed with lots of white cheese. This one is beautiful too, like a perfectly done piece of French toast, and intensely corn flavored, almost like a corn pudding, and pretty sweet.
Also listed as $4 appetizers are tostones, the savory plantain chips, with shredded beef, and tajadas, sweet, ripe plantain chips, with cheese.
What I don't know is how people eat one of these starters, or have a chicha to drink (see below), and then go on. Main dishes are hefty too. The Venezuelan national dish is pabellon: a big square of white rice surrounded by black beans, shredded beef in tomato sauce and sweet fried plantains. The beef is tender and rich.
Even more bounteous, and my overall favorite, is bandeja paisa, a dish originally Colombian. (Fans of the now-closed El Comal on Vernor will remember this one.) It will include at least rice, beans, shreds of steak and pork, chewy chicharrones in tomato sauce, an arepa, fried plantains, a large chunk of that exceptionally good chorizo, and all is topped with a fried egg. For me the combination of black beans and egg alone is irresistible — and that's the least celebrated part of the dish. The chicharrones are remarkably tender.
If you order a week in advance, Gutierrez will make you an hallaca, the Venezuelan tamale that is typically a Christmastime treat. Again it's corn dough, folded around beef, pork, chicken, raisins, capers, onion, and olives, wrapped in a plantain leaf and boiled. If your only experience of tamales is the dry cylindrical ones sold in Mexicantown — well, this is something else. One will serve two, for $10.25.
To drink, a typical Venezuelan beverage is papelón con limón: Unrefined brown whole cane sugar is mixed with water and lime juice to produce something like a limey iced tea. Fans of horchata will like chicha, a very thick boiled-rice drink with milk and sugar, topped with cinnamon. It's eggnog-like, but without alcohol, and available Friday-Sunday. The molasses-flavored malta soft drink is also on hand.
El Rey is in a residential neighborhood south of Michigan Avenue, west of Livernois, so it's off the beaten track. The Gutierrezes are spreading the word on Facebook, and you may be asked to star in a video soundbite. Don't hesitate!