*This review is originally posted on North by Northwestern*
Lately, Evanston has seen quite a bit of a turnover in its food scene. With restaurants offering food ranging from Arlen’s Chicken (which, unfortunately, has recently closed down) to Peppercorn Kitchen, does Evanston really need another new cuisine? The answer is yes, it does, and this April the answer came in the form of a Venezuelan cuisine restaurant.
Started off as a food truck in Chicago and New Orleans, La Cocinita recently opened up its first brick-and-mortar location in Evanston, right across from Whole Foods where Greek Fire Grill used to be. The original food truck idea was inspired to by the late-night street food carts in Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela, and since its opening in New Orleans in 2011, La Cocinita has expanded its food trucks to Chicago, and now in Evanston as a restaurant.
La Cocinita, which means “The Little Kitchen” in Spanish, serves contemporary Latin American food with a Venezuelan flair. From traditional Mexican items like tacos and quesadillas to more obscure Venezuelan dishes like arepas and cachapas, the restaurant offers a wide range of options that are both meat lover- and vegetarian-friendly. The service at the restaurant is semi-self-serve–after placing your order at the counter, you wait for the food to be brought over, and there are stations for water and silverware next to the counter.
Confused about what some menu items are because, like me, you don’t know a single word of Spanish? Worry not, the friendly waiter at the counter will patiently walk you through the menu, explaining what arepas are and suggesting some of their most popular food items. My friend Stephanie and I opted for the tacos combo-ten dollars for 3 tacos, and we chose lechon (braised pork), pollo estofado (braised chicken) and carne asada (grilled steak). We also got 2 arepas for ten dollars, La Reina Pepiada (chicken salad with avocado) and El Pabellon (steak with fried plantains). These came out within 10 minutes of wait–it seemed like the restaurant had carried over their speedy service as a food truck.
First, let’s talk about the tacos. Crispy but soft, the shells were sturdy enough to withhold the fillings. The last thing you want is for a taco to fall apart and make an embarrassing mess. The lechon (braised pork), was melt-in-your-mouth tender with a nice kick of spiciness to it, but the saltiness needed to be lowered down a notch. The asada (grilled steak), on the other hand, was more balanced in flavor, but the meat was a tad too chewy instead of juicy. The pollo estofado (braised chicken) tasted pleasantly average, like your cousin who’s amicable but isn’t too fun to talk to over Thanksgiving dinner.
Consuming the arepas was a more eye-opening experience, as it was our first time trying a traditional Venezuelan dish. An arepa is a type of flat dough made of corn flour, and is commonly served as a sandwich stuffed with various fillings in Venezuela. The arepa bread had a coarse, cornmeal-y texture to it, not unlike a thicker, denser version of a corn tortilla. Even though I’m not able to judge the authenticity of the arepas, I still loved the El Pabellon, which was stuffed with hearty chunks of well-cooked steak and was wonderfully sweetened up by pieces of fried plantains. The sweet and salty combination was spot on.
Sadly, the La Reina Pepiada arepa, which was filled with chicken salad and avocado spread, was surprisingly bland, the mushiness of the texture not helping the lack of flavors at all. (Mental note to self: choose something other than chicken at La Cocinita.) As we finished up the arepas, the carb to meat ratio became slightly off, as there weren’t enough fillings to balance the denseness of the dough.
Since we split the food evenly, we each ended up paying around $11 for one and a half tacos and one arepa. Although we were both pretty full after the meal, this isn’t exactly the cheapest food option in the area. But give this place a try if you’re adventurous and want to taste a different kind of Latin American cuisine in Evanston. Who knows, this restaurant might become your next go-to place for a quick bite.
Number: 847 332 1625
Address: 1625 Chicago Ave, Evanston, IL