The number of great fast casual restaurants in Raleigh grew in quantity and quality today. Guasaca is an “arepa and salsa grill” that is framed in the same format as Chipotle. As shown clearly on their menu (.pdf), diners choose a starch/form, a meat, vegetables, and a sauce. Food is presented in a cafeteria format, and soft drinks are self-serve.
Arepas have slowly made their way into Raleigh in recent years. At the Argentinian and Venezuelan-inspired Guasaca, the delicate, 5” corn meal patties are presented much like pita pockets. Their flavor is stunningly delicious, which balances their inherent messiness. Guasaca gives diners the option to do a bowl or salad format as well.
Guasaca offers an excellent assortment of meats: grilled chicken, shredded beef, grilled steak, braised pork, braised tilapia, and avocado chicken. I tried grilled chicken and braised pork. Both used quality meats, and their flavor was good, and a bit understated, which works well with this restaurant’s assortment of vegetables and sauces. Thankfully neither of these meats was burdened with the all-too-familiar grease and salt problems that plague so many ethic eateries in Raleigh.
I ordered two arepas: one pork (pictured right) with black-eyed peas, slaw, and pico de gayo; one with chicken (pictured left), black beans, and cheese. The toppings are the real story here. The black-eyed peas were good, but could use something like fire-roasted chile pepper to add some depth. The slaw was of the shredded, slightly dry variety with carrot, and was fantastic. It did not overpower the arepa, while the pico de gayo, with a great zing of cilantro did overpower the arepa, somewhat. The shredded cheese has more flavor than Chipotle’s lifeless cheese.
However the star of the show is the black beans. These beans are prepared in a bit more of a Cuban style then a Mexican style, so they feature more of an olive oil taste than a cumin dominant taste. Both bean preparations, however, contained enough sauce to disintegrate the second half of both arepas. While the flavor is completely worth it, the physical result is a mess. Be sure to get a fork and spoon before sitting down to eat these “finger food” items, because they will eventually become “fork food” at the point where your hands are the messiest. The arepas are presented in wax paper, so there isn’t a good landing place for the crumbling masterpiece.
The arepas come with a side sauce. I chose the cilantro and guasaca sauces. The cilantro sauce is a fantastic blend of cilantro and lime flavor, but is a bit acidic and should be used sparingly to keep from overpowering the arepa. The guasaca sauce, on the other hand, was the only item on the tray that was a flop. At a $1.50 premium, the guasaca sauce is way too heavy with raw garlic and raw onion. Two bites of this sauce is likely to ruin an afternoon if you aren’t a huge garlic fan..
Generally the chefs have found the key to blending flavors. None of the flavors fight each other, and dominant flavors are handled well. Both of my arepas had a slight hint of kick, but and in no way were “too hot”.
Guasaca is a first-store, local concept by a group of Venezuelan-born restaurateurs. If the restaurant can market themselves well, the group will have a big, big hit on their hands. This is exactly the variation on Southwestern/Mexican that the fast-casual American dining public needs. The price point is excellent, the ingredients are of outstanding quality, and most of the recipes are top-notch. The restaurant’s interior is beautiful, and well planned, and the menu, with its many options, is presented simply and clearly.
The restaurant is located between Buffalo Brothers and WhichWich on Lake Boone Trail. As the restaurant’s popularity grows, the ability to obtain a parking space at lunch in this center will become more difficult than ever. With their popular neighbors Buffalo Brothers and WhichWich, Chubby’s and Sushi-Thai across the street, the Lake Boone area has become one of the most interesting medium-priced dining areas in Raleigh. With crowds overflowing these restaurants, it only seems perfect that overflowing arepas join the mix.
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