Arepas Caffe

N.B. Arepas Caffe closed in November 2014. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

There are some restaurants where, as a customer, I get the distinct feeling that the staff simply don’t care. They don’t want to be there and they would rather you weren’t too and a smile when showing you to your table or taking your order is just too much bother. In others, they at least make an effort at the façade: they’re all smiles and charm to get you to a table and then they ignore you once you’re settled in, however many times you sit up like a meerkat and pull the “I’m ready to be served” face (surely it’s not just me? Actually, don’t answer that).

Why do I mention this? Well, Arepas Caffe might have the warmest and most genuine welcome of any Reading restaurant I’ve visited. The staff behind the counter went out of their way to talk me through the menu in detail, with a level of knowledge and enthusiasm that put most places to shame. There were party balloons up on the day I visited and the effusive woman at the till (who turned out to be the owner) told me it was her birthday recently. They’d had a party in the restaurant, she said, with customers and friends. “Many of our customers become friends” she said, and I can well believe her. Throughout my short lunchtime visit there were customers coming and going, collecting food and chatting, and all the time I struggled to tell the difference between customer and friends – not just because many of them were speaking Spanish.

Arepas Caffe is a Venezuelan café and has been open in Reading for a pretty astonishing eighteen months, tucked away opposite Greyfriars church, invisible to most of the population. I would never have found it myself if it hadn’t been for Jo Romero’s blog and it’s taken me almost six months get round to going – a huge oversight, I now realise, especially since they do churros (more of that later, though). The cafe itself is a small, skinny room with a counter at one end and seating along one side, with homely prints and pictures along the other (I noticed one saying mi casa, su casa which was particularly appropriate).

The menu is pretty simple, although more customisable than it looks at first glance. The main thing here, in accordance with the Ronseal Principle, is the arepas – small, round, pitta-like pockets made from corn instead of wheat – that can be filled with an array of, erm, fillings. The main ones are carne mechado and pollo mechado (shredded beef and chicken respectively) but you can also team these with black beans and cheese. Or you can have La Reina, a particularly decadent sounding combination of chicken, avocado and garlic sauce. But if you don’t fancy arepas there are other options, all revolving around those fillings: burritos, empanadas or pabellón, which is basically the same thing served with rice and beans. The owner told me, with obvious pride, that everything is made by hand on the premises and, if you needed any further incentive, it’s also gluten free (and I thought Nibsy’s was the first to do this: you live and learn).

So far, all terrific, but was the food any good? Well, generally, yes it was. The arepa itself was crispy on the outside and slightly sticky and doughy in the middle, which made it feel a little heavy. But what was in it was tasty: chicken cooked until it was falling apart in a tomato and chilli sauce, topped with grated cheese. And the cheese! The owner said that the cheese was really good and she was right – it had the flavour of a decent tangy cheddar but the slightly plasticky (in a good way) texture of processed cheese, perfect for melting. So it was almost a big hit: I’m not sure if I would have the arepa again – that gluey texture left me a little underwhelmed – but the contents were really good, especially considering they were only a fiver. I think I missed the chance to pick a few more fillings, being a bit overloaded with choice, but that’s something definitely worth rectifying with a return visit.

Arepa

The beef empanada was a very similar story. There isn’t a sign on the wall at Arepas saying You don’t have to like corn to eat here, but it helps but there really should be: I’m used to Argentinian empanadas made with thin pastry, but the Venezuelan version is also made with corn and as a result was also a little bit thick and stodgy for my tastes. But the filling was magnificent – sticky shreds of slow-cooked, savoury beef. Beautiful on the inside, iffy on the outside, like seeing a hot person wearing an unflattering outfit. But it didn’t make me think Never again, it just made me think next time I’m cutting the crap and having the pabellón.

Empanada

Now, back to those churros I mentioned earlier: I know this was only lunch but I couldn’t resist trying them. I’ve had them in Spain and not heard of them elsewhere, but the owner told me that they’re absolutely churro crazy in South America so here they are. There is even a chain of cafes over there called Churromania, apparently: now that’s one chain I wouldn’t mind seeing expand to Reading. For two pounds forty-nine they serve up four stubby churros (about the size of a fat marker pen) with a small dish of chocolate sauce. If the arepa made me want to come back and order something different then the churros made me want to come back and order the churros. They were heaven: piping hot, crispy on the outside, fluffy in the middle, and lightly dusted with sugar and cinnamon. The chocolate sauce was like a thin Nutella: not to my personal taste, but it didn’t go to waste at my table and was perfect for dipping and taking out a little of that heat. All told, I can think few ways to spend under three quid in a Reading restaurant that would bring anywhere near as much joy as these did.

Churros

On the side we had an iced tea and a mango juice. The owner told me, again with pride, that the juice had been freshly made that day – I got that in that clean, green taste but I found it a little on the watery side (I think maybe that’s my fault, though – spoiled by all those mango lassis I’ve enjoyed this year). The total bill came to fifteen pounds: not half bad for a hot two course lunch in an enthusiastic independent café.

I can’t help wondering what might have been. Maybe if I had gone for a burrito or the pabellón instead of the more sticky arepas and empanadas I’d be giving this a higher rating (I also fancied trying the cachapa, a corn – what else? – pancake filled with something a bit like mozzarella). But, on the other hand, the sign of a good restaurant is that you’re planning what you’ll eat on your second visit before you’ve finished the first, and on that basis it’s impossible not to recommend Arepas Caffe. They’re open until eight in the evening, and I can well imagine I’ll drop by after work one day to have another crack at finding the best things on the menu. Besides, when the staff are this friendly it would be rude not to go back for another helping of the churros. Just for quality control purposes, si?

When I got home, I looked at Arepas’ Facebook page. The owner wasn’t kidding about the birthday party – they even have photos up, and everyone looks like they’re having a fantastic time. Go have a look and let me know if you can tell the difference between the customers and friends: I know I couldn’t.

Arepas Caffe – 6.8
89 Friar Street, RG1 1EL
0118 957 1551

Arepas Caffe

My Kitchen

My Kitchen closed in September 2016. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

When Cappuccina Café closed last month I confess that I kicked myself that I hadn’t visited it earlier. Independent places face a huge struggle to open, create a following and survive – something Reading’s many chains will never experience. So I regret the fact that I didn’t shout about Cappuccina Café sooner and visit more often (especially seeing as it turned out to be so good) and this week’s review is an attempt on my part not to make that mistake again.

I’ve been putting off reviewing My Kitchen, even though it’s been open for months, because of a disappointing visit shortly after it opened. But since then I’ve heard lots of accounts that suggest that they’ve found their feet (including rave reviews of some of their cakes), and their website makes all the right noises about local ingredients and freshly prepared food. So I went along desperately hoping that they could live up to all of that promise, and a little worried about the review I might have to write if they didn’t.

My Kitchen has a spot on one of the most beautiful streets in Reading; Queen Victoria Street has those beautiful red brick buildings on both side, wide pavements and a view of the fetching frontage of John Lewis. We loitered outside for long enough to get a table out on the street (quite a challenge in the sunny weather) and wandered in to order some lunch. Inside the cafe is a long counter with sandwiches, salads, soup and lots of cakes and above that a blackboard listing all the options. Along with the muted grey paintwork and mis-matched tables and chairs in the back it makes for an attractive space (although not one to spend time in on a summer’s day – it was punishingly hot in there).

I was impressed by the sheer range of options and I’m afraid, faced with all those choices, I rather froze like a rabbit in the headlights and broke one of the fundamental rules of reviewing: I ordered two things which were very similar indeed. So I should be telling you about the smoked salmon and horseradish baguette (which looked delicious) or the lentil soup, but instead you get to hear all about two toasted sandwiches. Sorry about that.

The goat’s cheese, red onion chutney and baby spinach panini was delicious: generously filled, the ratios all perfect and precise, salty-sweet and far too easy to hoover up. Granted, it’s never going to win any awards for originality, but it’s a classic for a reason. Toasted focaccia with halloumi, peppers and sweet chilli was also gorgeous – a lovely contrast between the soft, pillowy bread, the firm chewy halloumi and the crisp crunch of those peppers. If I was being critical I would have questioned whether it was really focaccia, and I would have said a tad more sweet chilli sauce would have really brought it alive, but I was enjoying it far too much to be critical.

To try and make amends for picking such similar sandwiches we also tried some sausage roll bites. It must be a sign of galloping food inflation that they’re described as “bites” because they looked like decent sized sausage rolls to me. They were terrific – not hot, and I’m quite glad they didn’t make a half-hearted attempt at heating them up. The pastry was spot on, light and buttery with a smattering of sesame seeds for decoration and the sausage meat inside was just wonderful – not suspiciously smooth, not offputtingly bouncy, just coarse and tasty, yielding herby porky perfection.

Drinks were good too, if more difficult to wax lyrical about. Twinings Earl Grey is Twinings Earl Grey, after all – although I did appreciate the attractive enamel teapot, which was a cracking pourer and contained enough for two cups. As regular readers will know, I’m not particularly a coffee fan but I’m told the latte was very nice indeed. (“not quite as good as Lincoln or Workhouse but a lot better than Picnic”, apparently). Actually, I liked the tableware in general – everything comes on those attractive white and blue enamelware plates which are very Labour And Wait, simultaneously very now and really rather timeless. It made me want to track them down and buy some for myself.

My Kitchen

I couldn’t go without trying one of their cakes. Having seen people rave about the gluten free chocolate brownie I felt it was my duty to try one, and it was a smart move. It was probably the best brownie I’ve had in Reading, a wonderful contrast between the crisp, brittle exterior and the soft, slightly gooey inside. The website says they deliberately use less sugar in their cakes and I like to think I noticed that – the flavour was full and rich and didn’t rely on sweetness to get its point across. My only complaint is that I agreed to share it; I won’t make that mistake again.

When I ordered the brownie the lady behind the counter said “ooh, good choice!” before dishing it up. I really liked that: enthusiasm counts for an awful lot. And I got a lot of enthusiasm from My Kitchen – the service was as welcoming as the food. Even with a queue of customers behind me the staff were friendly and chatty, and when they brought my sandwiches out they smiled. A little thing, maybe, but have lunch in some of the other places in town and check out how rarely it happens. All told two sandwiches, two sausage roll bites, a slice of chocolate brownie and two hot drinks came to just under £17. In fairness I went a bit mad and over-ordered so I could try things out, but in general prices are comparable to My Kitchen’s competitors on Coffee Corner.

I’m hugely relieved to be able to say that I really liked My Kitchen. In many ways they are following in the footsteps of Picnic, which celebrated its seventh birthday earlier this month (a mind-boggling fact in itself: I can’t imagine Reading before Picnic came along) but if Reading can have that many Caffe Neros it can definitely accommodate another place in the same mould as Picnic. I think I might even prefer My Kitchen, although it’s probably some form of weird Redingensian heresy to say so.

I’m not sure they are serving food that’s out-of-this-world inventive, but that’s not what they’re about – they’re about doing simple things well, and I’m all for that. It’s nice to have somewhere else to go for a quick sandwich or a slice of rejuvenating cake, and I really hope there’s a market for that because My Kitchen is the kind of place Reading needs, even if Reading doesn’t necessarily realise that. Or perhaps they do know it: when I visited, there was a scrum for the seating and I had to wait to grab a table outside. Fifty yards down Queen Victoria Street, two forlorn people were all that could be seen sitting outside Starbucks. Maybe the tide is turning after all. Just maybe.

My Kitchen – 7.5

29 Queen Victoria Street, RG1 1TG
07403 588399

http://www.mykitchenandcoffee.co.uk/