You might have a clear picture in your head of what Venezuelan food should be, and, if you do, you're definitely ahead of the curve in that respect. Seeing as how there isn't a single brick-and-mortar Venezuelan joint in Tucson, it's not surprising if you aren't sure what to expect. However, the family behind the Ricuras de Venezuela food truck is looking to change that.
Sure, Ricuras de Venezuela means the riches of Venezuela. Really though, this food truck is about family legacy for Marlene Baquet and her son William Zambrano. Baquet explains that it was always her mother's dream to bring their country's food to Tucson in an authentic way. After 22 years in the U.S., Baquet is finally getting the opportunity to show off her mother's recipes that hail from La Guaira, Venezuela.
"My mom always wanted to make an areperia here. She knew it was going to be a bomb but we just never had the time," Baquet says. "After my mom died, I was inspired to get it going."
One of the hardest parts for Baquet and her husband Steve was actually getting the truck itself. Over a year ago, they began searching for something with the right grill top to make arepas, finally finding the perfect truck for Ricuras in Sinaloa.
After some customization, Baquet, with the help of her stepson Matthew, who works at Club Congress as a booker, opened the Ricuras window for the first time on Dec. 31 at the hotel's New Year's Eve party—serving up piping hot arepas to hungry, slightly inebriated, and very grateful crowds amidst the rain and snow.
Since then, the truck has been parked outside of Hotel Congress on Friday and Saturday nights from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m. for the late night crowd and Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. outside of the family's insurance office at 890 W. Grant Road.
All of the family agrees that education, which is a slow process, is the next hurdle for Ricuras. A sign hangs outside of the food truck that reads:
"What are Arepas? Homemade spongy corn flour pita-like pockets. Crisp on the outside. Steamy soft in the middle. Grilled & baked or deep fried, stuffed or plain."
Each arepa is prepped and filled à la minute, which explains why it takes about five minutes to get your order. However, there's a reason folks happily wait in line on weekend nights for their order time and time again: the soft, pillowy inside and crispy, crunchy outside of the lard-free round corn arepa is damn near perfectly cooked, regardless of what you decide to fill it with.
Baquet jokes that they are also gluten free, which they are technically since they're made with masa but not intentionally so. On the inside, you can opt for jamon and a thick slab of queso fresco, spiced and tangy pollo (chicken), light and fresh reina pepiada (chicken salad), juicy pernil (pork), or carne mechada (slow-cooked shredded beef)—the truck's best seller.
$5 might seem pricy if you're expecting a taco, which Zambrano says happens quite a bit. An arepa is much more filling than a $2 street taco—likely because street tacos typically come with about two ounces of meat, while the Ricuras arepas are loaded up with somewhere closer to six to eight ounces when all is said and done.
It's not all about the meat though. While Baquet admits Venezuela is a carne-centric cuisine, the domino arepa is a satisfying combination of black bean and queso fresco that offers a solid vegetarian arepa option that's so messy and tasty that you might find yourself ordering it even if you eat meat.
Baquet says it was important for her to ensure that the vegetarian options, which also include a casserole and an entrée plate, were as flavorful and exciting as the traditional meat offerings. Overall, she says sourcing as locally as possible and incorporating healthy new ingredients like kale and turmeric is the only thing she's really changed about her family recipes.
"My mom never used kale, but I try to pair it with a good sauce and make it taste good so people don't even know it's there," she says
In that way, Baquet takes an almost motherly charge over her customers—ensuring they eat their vegetables no matter what by making them taste good. She says if you have any other dietary restrictions or allergies, she's happy to help you find something they make that you can eat.
Aside from arepas, the truck offers an entrée plate with your protein of choice, spiced mixed vegetables, black beans, and seasoned rice called the Pabellon Criollo ($7) as well as shredded or ground beef Venezuelan style empanadas ($3). If you're thirsty, the papelón con limón ($1) is the Venezuelan take on lemonade, except, since it uses real raw cane sugar, it's much richer and deeper in flavor.
Guests can also jazz up their meals with their choice of three sauces offered. The first and most basic is labeled "pink sauce"—a mix of mayo and ketchup. A traditional avocado and cilantro sauce adds that ricuras to dishes. However, the family responded to requests to add some heat by kicking up that sauce recipe in another iteration that uses local chiltepins to offer something for the Southwest spice-lover's palate. You can tell which is which because the chiltepin-laced sauce is marked with bright red tape around the bottle as a warning.
In the future, the family says they could see having either more food trucks or a stationary restaurant location, but for now, they're happy to serve up a taste of Venezuela to Tucson in a way that no one else really is.