My wife has long accused me of getting carried away with my work, her latest repetition of this charge brought on by my decision to attend our friends' Halloween party dressed as an arepa con queso. She seemed skeptical of my claim that the masquerade had nothing to do with my job, that it was merely a savvy attempt to play up to potential Latino votes on the panel that awards the grand prize for best costume. "I pity the poor sap who shows up dressed as a grilled cheese sandwich," I said as a means of bolstering my case. The only comeback she could muster was some mumbo-jumbo about it probably being "coincidental" that I recently concluded reviewing Primarepa, the Colombian restaurant chain that opened a branch this past year on Alton Road in South Beach.
I don't deny I just finished sampling an array of arepas, which, without the queso, are what Colombians consider their daily bread. But in fact I have no intention of showing up as the Primarepa rendition. It's certainly a satisfying one, melted white cheese atop a lightly grilled, pita-sized, white maize biscuit -- not at all greasy, and obviously less sweet than those made with sweet corn. But attempting to look like a sandwich-style, yellow cornmeal-based arepa is difficult enough -- an open-faced white on white would be nearly impossible to approximate in convincing manner.
Primarepa looks like a fast-food destination, its glass storefront windows facing the street and running the length of the 22-seat, 7-stool room, a red brick façade brightening the counter and food service area in a Mickey D sort of way. The food, however, has a decidedly home-cooked aura, evident in the pieces of potato found in superbly soupy red beans, and in practically dissolved pasta noodles and an occasional wishbone lurking in the bowl of chicken soup.
Primarepa Colombian Restaurant
1570 Alton Rd, Miami Beach
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.; Call 305-532-9862.
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Soups are something of a signature item at Primarepa, each day bringing a couple of broth-based specials. One of Tuesday's offerings is the aforementioned chicken soup, a full-flavored, made-from-scratch broth well stocked with chicken, potato, and what seemed a frozen medley of peas, corn, carrots, and lima beans. Poultry aficionados can also enjoy chicken, rice, and boiled egg soup on Monday, Colombian-style chicken soup on Friday, and hen soup on Sunday.
Tripe, ribs, oxtail, and lentils identify the other soups, which run $2.75 to $5; for an extra $1.50 you get a scoop of rice, sweet plantains, and salad on the side -- more specifically, sticky, lukewarm rice; two pieces of plantain; and shredded, undressed iceberg lettuce with a couple of carrot threads and slice of tomato. I'd stick with a solo soup chaperoned by à la carte accompaniments -- like, say, one of those arepas, which come bedecked with toppings of chorizo, pork rinds, or blood sausage. Another good side bet would be puffily fried yuca wedges.
Primarepa preps a whole slew of main courses, a mostly grilled, sometimes breaded lineup of steaks, pork chops, liver, chicken, snapper, and so on, generally plated with some combo of rice, plantains, and red beans. Portions are large, prices low -- $4 to $12. A menu of so-called "mini" versions of many of the entrées is generous in a less grandiose way, and a steal at $5.95 to $6.50.
The staff at Primarepa is Latin, as is much of the clientele. I asked a few workers if they'd be interested in coming to a Halloween party and serving as celebrity judges for a prestigious costume contest, but seems they had prior commitments. Still I am already practicing my thank-you speech for the award ceremony, which last year, if I recall correctly, featured a used Moby CD as first prize. I can't wait to see the look on my wife's face when, in the guise of an arepa con queso, I raise my winning disc triumphantly in the air and declare victory.