As soon as we enter Oh Corn! Arepas and More, we’re ambushed, in the nicest possible way, with samples of papelon — a diluted molasses and fresh lemon juice drink given a slightly unfortunate moniker of “brown lemonade” ($4.50) — and guanabana ($4.50), a creamy white soursop fruit juice pinging with exotic, tropical notes.
Owners Belkis Castro and Jose F. Theokisto happily chatter away, to us and others, as though we’re hanging out in their kitchen, knocking back blender shots. Castro shares her love of classical music and some family background: She’s a former attorney; Theokisto is employed by General Electric, with two daughters raised locally after moving to the area 11 years ago. Instead of a family photo album, they whip out an iPad, proudly sharing an impromptu performance by rock violinist Daisy Jopling, who’d stopped in recently for lunch.
Castro and Theokisto might be among the happiest, loveliest people on earth. By the end of lunch, I’m torn between maintaining anonymity and a keen desire to invite them over for dinner. Pressing an illustrated menu-binder into our hands, Theokisto continues to ply newcomers with juices while Castro scoots behind the glass case into the open kitchen to mold the arepas’ white corn dough into perfect spheres using quick flicks of her wrist, popping them onto the griddle one by one.
The menu couldn’t be much simpler. It hinges on Venezuelan staples: white corn arepas and sweeter, yellow corn cachapas, stuffed with an improbably broad array of fillings for meals at any time of day, and a smattering of plantain-based snacks or yucca fries ($4.50). Smashed and milled corn flour forms bread somewhere between steamed bao and the floppy sponginess of Ethiopian injera, only thicker and split into pita-style pouches. When we ask if we should get two each, we’re comically sized up and given the all clear to try, while Castro laughs that a Venezuelan upbringing gives them an edge with a lifetime of training.
I don’t know why I’ve never eaten sweet plantains with crispy bacon before, but the combo is outrageous. Pressed into oozing, warm mozzarella in the Arepa Maduros ($8.50 with toppings), it blows all other breakfast sandwiches out of the water. Mini arepas — “arepitas” — fried and filled with shredded cheese, are tiny gooey bombs, crisp-edged like hash browns. The voluptuous, sweet Cachapa Queen (Reine Pepiada, $8.95), filled with shredded chicken breast creamy with avocado, mayo and cilantro, is named after the Venezuelan “Miss World” 1955; tangy pernil ($6.95) — shredded pork braised in red wine and orange juice — has the signature sweet-fruity acidity of Venezuelan cuisine; and the King (pabellon, $9) a bellyful of seasoned black beans, sweet plantains and beef flecked with orange from a classic sweet pepper sofrito sauce, falls apart more helplessly than Lindsay Lohan.
Oh Corn! is sandwiched between a grocery and nail salon in an unassuming strip mall in Halfmoon. The challenges of a strip mall setting being well-documented, the couple has done all they can to make it feel more like home. It’s immaculate. A Venezuelan cuatro guitar, maracas and window frame with aqua shutters hang on avocado walls above aqua banquettes. Colorful chalkboards announce exotic juices, and the glass case — the assembly line centerpiece of any Subway or Moe’s — showcases fresh fillings from shredded meats to tomatoes and hearts of palm. Food arrives in little spurts, each item straight to the table from fryer or griddle, all patrons enthusiastically directed to the little spice bar bristling with hot sauces to self-administer the required dose of heat.
Halfmoon is rarely a destination in my week, and yet two days after our visit we divert a houseguest to pick up takeout on his way to us. Despite an order-by-number pictorial menu, Oh Corn! is the antithesis of mass-production fast food. Everything is fresh, cooked to order, naturally gluten-free and besides a few fried items (like the remarkably chewy twice-fried plantain tostones, $4.50), it’s mostly healthy — aided by the digestive benefits of tamarind and soursop juice. Gluten desserts brought in by a friend ensure the kitchen stays gluten-free, but choices run from flan or Nutella crepes to chocolate cake and tiramisu. We gamely order the Tres Leche sponge ($4.70), an irresistible cube drenched in sweetened, condensed and evaporated milk splendor, and finally admit defeat.
With “taco trucks on every corner” still trending, perhaps Marco Gutierrez of Latinos for Trump should prepare for Venezuela’s arepa invasion.
Lunch for two — including four arepas/cachapas, two sides, two juices and one dessert — came to $65.49 with tax and an optional $5 tip. The bill for one arepa, one side and a $4.50 juice would be around $17.
Oh Corn! Arepas and More
1505 Route 9
Cuisine: Venezuelan white corn arepas and yellow corn cachapas with an impressive array of fillings from breakfast-themed to slow-simmered Venezualan pork in red wine and orange juice or beef slow simmered in sofrito sauce.
Ambiance: Incredibly friendly, casual family-owned Venezuelan café in strip mall space.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Credit cards: All major.
Parking: Strip mall parking lot.
Handicapped accessible: Yes.
Price ratings for inexpensive eateries based on average of entrée costs:
$: $9.95 and less
$$$: $15.95 and higher
Susie Davidson Powell is a freelance writer from East Greenbush. Follow her on Twitter, @SusieDP. To comment on this review, visit the Table Hopping blog, blog.timesunion.com/tablehopping.