Avila Venezuelan Cuisine on Calhoun Street started as a food truck in 2016. Venezuelan native Melanie Blohm and Adam Goodwin's platos and arepas quickly gained enough popularity to merit a brick-and-mortar storefront that opened at the tail end of the year. There, in the former home of Ladles, Avila is showcasing food that's both creative and beautiful to behold.
The Cachapas ($6), a light, fluffy corn pancake that resembles a fresh folded omelet stuffed with melted queso fresco, is subtle and delicate in flavor. But while the presentation is unique and photo worthy, the best part of the dish can't be captured in megapixels. Corn has never tasted fresher unless nibbled directly from the cob.
Equally Instagram-able are the Loaded Tostones ($8). Described as "nachos with plantain chips," the appetizer portion was a mouth-watering, heavily topped bite. The plantain chips are hands down the best I have ever had the pleasure of eating, both crispy and puffy and loaded to the brim with fresh smashed avocado, crema, and queso fresco. My tostones were also topped with mushrooms as Avila's menu invites you to pick a "filling" that ranges from braised beef to pulled pork. I should have gone with a meat option as the over-reduced 'shrooms were a disproportionately salty bite in an otherwise unique dish.
The Tequenos ($6), also on the appetizer menu, sounded promising but suffered from the exact opposite problem: they had little flavor. The deep-fried cheese sticks resembled mozzarella sticks in shape and consistency but tasted as though there was no salt in either the batter or the cheese. While the lack of flavor could have been excused in favor of a melty, gooey consistency, the cheese was barely melted at all.
Avila's menu is divided into snacks, meals, and desserts, and the entrees at the Venezuelan eatery, while all lovely to look at, have their pros and cons. The Patacon ($8) — a plantain sandwich — came with a choice of filling and my selection of carne mechada, braised beef with garlic, peppers and onions, looked great. Picking it up to eat, however, was another story. The fried plantains intended to be used as the bread holding the sandwich together didn't exactly work. The best way to describe this is to picture a semi-soft ice cream sandwich — one bite and the ice cream squirts out the side and you're left eating two crumbled cookies. That was almost the exact same sensation of eating the Patacon. I'm sure that the flavors in theory work very well but the physics did not make sense. A shame as the plantain chips were excellent and the beef was seasoned with the right amount of salt and garlic.
For my money, I'd go with the Platos ($12). The aptly named entrée features a plate of rice, beans, shaved red cabbage, plantain chips, and a choice of fillings. And if you're heading that direction, skip the chocolate chicken filling — consisting of stewed chicken in a savory chocolate sauce — and opt for the Pernil. The true star, this juicy pulled pork is served in a mojo vinegar sauce. The black beans hovering on the edge of plate are just salty enough to balance the bright rice topped with fresh chopped cilantro. Add those plantain chips and you've got an affordable, flavorful lunch.
One thing that cannot be ignored at Avila is that every single dish that arrived at the table was plated with precision and care. It's as though the kitchen just knows you're not going to be able to help yourself from taking a picture. Each plate is colorful and pretty, featuring food that begs to be admired. It's all served in modest wooden bowls on cafeteria trays to contrast the simplicity of the plating to the artful nature of the cuisine.
Whether or not the food is authentic Venezuelan is not a question that I have the capacity to address. What I can state with certainty is that the dishes Avila gets right are a rare choice in the city. We simply do not have food that can compare to the variety of flavors in the platos and the freshness and texture of the corn in the cachapas. For those two dishes alone, it's worth taking a seat in the tiny dining room and ordering something you most likely haven't had before. If Avila is able to figure out how to consistently produce photo-worthy food that is every bit as beautiful, tasty, and successful as it looks, they'll have a permanent residence at the little storefront on Calhoun for years to come.