There is something inexplicably lovely about a place that appears warm when it is cold outside, feels like the weekend on a Monday night, and instantly hushes the hectic world into intimate conversations. A lonely barstool with a view of a tiny open kitchen, where you can watch a chef groove to the rhythm of the food they're cooking, is better than any loud and crowded bar in the city in my book.
I am sold on Capitol Hill's restaurant Meza, a dimly lit alcove along the walls of 14th Avenue, with barely a sliver of sidewalk seating. The depth of history found in its transnational, traditional "Latin Fare" menu makes the food just a little bit magical. Its house-infused vodka menu doesn't hurt my opinion of it, either. But ultimately, all else aside, the reason I go is invariably to peruse the back page of the menu and order from the selection of arepitas.
In the history of "Latin Fare," it can be difficult to sort out the threads that have woven together the tapestry we now recognize as such. In the case of Meza, a restaurant only two years old, the fusion is between Spanish, Venezuelan, and Cuban cuisines. But digging a little into the history of any one of these diets will reveal intermingling of histories and menus, so much so that it becomes nearly impossible to tell what belongs to whom.
Something like the arepita, a traditional and gluten-free "Latin American" dish, stems from Native American food that actually far predates the introduction of "Latin" to "American" at all. Original to Venezuela (and, in related forms, its surrounding countries), the arepita is essentially a little corn-flour cake that is baked, grilled, or (traditionally) fried until crispy on the outside and soft inside, allowing the center to be scooped out and replaced with any manner of fillings. It is an early take on the concept of the sandwich, like the Salvadoran pupusa, and something the Spanish speaking world never knew existed until their interactions with the Americas, where corn grew and was used as grain.
Occasionally, I find myself wondering if European cuisine might have been sadly drab before it became what we now know it to be with the introduction of tomatoes, and spices, and noodles, and pizza, and peppers, and potatoes, and corn, and on-and-on, through trade and travel. No offense intended to the things that do grow native to a country like Spain, but I find it no wonder Europe was motivated to colonize other places. I might have been tempted to do the same, if all I'd had to eat was... well, I'm not exactly clear on what was eaten in places like Italy before pasta and tomatoes were introduced. (A lot of fresh seafood, I suppose, and there's nothing wrong with that.) We typically hear stories of explorers searching for treasures like gold, undying youth, or other mythically grandiose goals. But I am convinced that more than half of exploring must have been about the food, something they rarely focus on in schoolbooks. (Pick up an alternative history, like Mark Pendergrast's Uncommon Grounds if you want to read about a consumable product -such as coffee - changing the shape of an entire world.)
Pica Pica Maize Kitchen, San Francisco
I love corn. Rice and corn and an abundance of more obscure grains I never even knew about before my gluten-free days make being gluten-free surprisingly fine with me. Who really needs wheat in the face of cornmeal, corn flour, grilled corn on the cob, and crispy little corn cakes stuffed with pulled pork, or chicken and avocado, or any number of other marvelous fillings? Why mind passing up the bocadillos (Cuban style sandwiches) on the menu? Meza's arepitas are at once crunchy, soft, salty, sweet, and savory. They are often understated in flavor, and I find that fortunate because they are so loaded with sensory flair that adding any more flamboyance would be overwhelming for the diner.
In spite of recent legal issues, Meza seems to have its feet under it again with entirely new management and a return to original ownership. It may be slightly less crowded than it once was, for now, but it is no less inviting, and the arepitas are just as good! Their grill (somewhat like a panini press) is shared between gluten-full and gluten-free menu items, so if you are sensitive, make sure you specifically ask them to put fresh foil down for your order before cooking it. (They will be happy to oblige, and you will be happy that you asked.)
Meza is located at 1515 14th Ave. Suite C, and is open Sunday thru Thursday, 5:00 pm - 10:00 pm, and from 5:00 pm - 3:00 am on Fridays and Saturdays.