There are strong similarities in many dishes originating in Latin America and the Caribbean, but there are also differences, however subtle. It is a source of frustration for people who like to taste-test food analytically that so many Miami ethnic eateries supposedly specializing in the food of one country also serve generalized "comidas latinas." With generally inadequate menu translations the rule, it's often impossible to really pinpoint the difference between, say, the empanadas of Argentina and Cuba.
At La Crema de las Empanadas, this is no problem. As the soccer shirts on the wall make clear, this small luncheonette and minimarket is totally Venezuelan. So are the empanadas that are La Crema's specialty. In most of South America, empanadas are made from wheat flour; this is often true in Venezuela's mountainous regions, too. The country's signature Caracas-style empanadas, however, are thick-crusted affairs made from corn meal and deep-fried, formidable casings for some substantial fillings. Forget about those patties with a scant tablespoonful of stuffing. These huge half moons are a full meal -- and at only $2.50 to $3 per empanada, a bargain-priced breakfast or lunch.
Fillings are unusual as well, one of the best being pabellon, often referred to as Venezuela's national dish. Spiced (but not spicy) shredded beef, it is similar to ropa vieja but with black caraota beans added to the mix, and intriguing sweet-and-sour notes. It could've used hints of garlic and cilantro; truly superior pabellon has more subtle complexity than La Crema's version. Still it is tasty stuff, and the cornbreadlike shell soaked up the juices beautifully without falling apart.
At La Crema de las Empanadas
10674 Coral Way, West Miami-Dade; 305-485-9360.
Open daily 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Also good was a signature Crema empanada, with chunks of chicken, bacon, and crumbly white cheese. For vegetarians a black-and-white Domino empanada, stuffed with the same cheese plus caraota beans, was comforting if a bit bland. A more interesting vegetable choice was a platano con queso empanada. The plantain was a sweet shock.
The only empanada I definitely wouldn't order again was one stuffed with cazon, a type of small shark. The fish shreds were not only dry to the point of mummification but also reeked with such extreme fishiness that even heavy spicing couldn't disguise it.
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Though empanadas are the eatery's specialty, don't neglect the arepas, also made with cornmeal and quite similar except for their round shape and greater thickness. The latter imparts contrast -- just as crisp a crust but a somewhat lighter, more breadlike interior. La Crema's arepas were not as custardy-soft as some I've had in Venezuela, but were worlds better than the heavy, sodden discs you find packaged in supermarkets. As for fillings, pernil (pork) lacked the juicy savor of great Cuban lechon asado. But an arepa packed with hefty slices of asado negro, pot roast whose black color comes from caramelizing its surface with sugar, was a respectable version.
An operada (basically a sort of arepa baguette) filled with reina pepiada, an avocado-garnished chicken salad, was enough food for two. Unfortunately, though, the chicken preparation was more mayonnaise than poultry -- atypically. The charm of reina pepiada is that it is customarily sparely dressed.
Whatever you eat at La Crema, don't leave without a six-pack of their housemade cachapas. Topped with slices of queso telita, an artisan white cheese (also available in the eatery's refrigerated counter) that has little character cold but, slightly warmed, puts most fresh mozzarella to shame, these fragrant Venezuelan corn pancakes, each the size of a small planet, are the breakfast of champions.