Somerville Adds a Pop of Flavor
Local immigrant food entrepreneurs bring their home-inspired cuisine to Union Square with the Flavor Lounge pop-up restaurant series.
Have you ever had the pleasure of sinking your teeth into a piping hot arepa? If not, you don’t know what you’re missing. The nutty, almost buttery taste of the masa is the perfect vehicle for a wide range of fillings, and can be eaten any time of day. Now, thanks to the Nibble Culinary Entrepreneurship Program (NEP), run by the Somerville Arts Council (SAC), a pair of local entrepreneurs is working to make arepas the next big thing in the Boston area.
The Dynamic Duo
Carolina Salinas and Carolina Garcia, originally from Venezuela and known together as Las Carolinas, already run a successful engraving business together. Just over a month ago, the two friends enrolled in NEP, which helps local immigrant food entrepreneurs learn the ins and outs of starting a business. “They showed us the steps we needed to get to our goals,” says Salinas, “including a business plan.”
A couple of weeks ago, Las Carolinas got hands-on experience selling their arepas to the public at the first of four pop-up restaurants. NEP’s “Flavor Lounge” series features a different chef and cuisine each Saturday in June, and takes place from 12:00 – 2:00 p.m. at P.A.’s Lounge in Union Square. Last week’s customers arrived in waves to sample arepas filled with pelua (shredded meat and cheese), domino (black beans and cheese), the classic (ham and cheese), and plantain and cheese. “People love that combination of sweet and sour,” Garcia says.
The SAC’s Culinary Coordinator, Nick Schonberger, explains, “Through our entrepreneurship program, one of the most valuable experiences is actually doing it. You can sit in a classroom and talk about what it’s like to open a business, but until you actually have to do it, it helps you understand every detail necessary to… be successful. This pop-up series is a way to test that.” Each of the four pop-up entrepreneurs is responsible for writing a budget, buying ingredients, renting kitchen space to prepare the food, paying for labor, and determining how to make a profit.
According to Las Carolinas, arepas are available 24-7 anywhere in Venezuela. “They are the perfect complete food,” Garcia says. They’re made with a simple masa of cornmeal, water, and a bit of salt. Once combined, the mixture is molded into a ball by hand and shaped into a thick patty. The arepas are then boiled, baked, fried or toasted until the outside is crispy. Once cut open, curls of fragrant steam escape the fluffy and tender inside, which can be filled with endless combinations of avocado, tomato, ground or shredded meat, eggplant, tuna or chicken salad, beans, plantains, and cheese. Topped with sauces like basil mayo, a cilantro-based pico de gallo made without tomato, pink sauce (ketchup and mayo) or garlic sauce, Salinas enthuses, “We know Americans, when they taste it, they’ll love it.”
What’s Up with Pop-Ups?
Ellie Tiglao likens pop-up restaurants to flash mobs. “It’s a little unpredictable,” she admits. “You’ve got this added element of uncertainty. And I think that’s what is really fun for people who do come to the pop-ups, because not only do they not know where [the restaurant] is going to be next, but the menu can change depending on where we’re at.” Tiglao served her signature Filipino-American barbecue at the second event in the Flavor Lounge series last Saturday.
After moving to the Boston area to study and work in neuroscience, Tiglao missed Filipino cooking. She and her brother set up their first pop-up restaurant at Aeronaut Brewing Company. “It was kind of just like a fun thing to do initially,” remembers Tiglao, “But we kept selling out, and people kept coming to more, so it became clear to me — especially when I realized how close it is to what I love about science — that this felt more and more like my purpose.”
Tiglao and her brother grew up cooking in California with their father, a chef, and their grandmother. “Especially coming from immigrant households, I think you do a lot of your own cooking,” she explains. “The way that we show each other love is through cooking, so we spent a lot of time in the kitchen together.”
Alternatively, Monica Sepulveda, who will be serving empanadas the third Saturday in the pop-up series, claims she used to be bad in the kitchen. Sepulveda, who is from Rio Negro (near Medellín) in Columbia, learned to cook after she got married. She studied industrial engineering, and began researching healthier food options almost a decade ago when her diabetic father fell ill. Her thesis on food additives won her a prize to start her own company, which she sold before moving to the U.S.
The masa Sepulveda uses to make her empanadas is made with corn and yucca in the traditional Columbian way. “However, I tried to innovate,” she says. “The filling I’m going to use this time is going to be vegan and gluten-free.” According to Sepulveda, most Columbians eat empanadas filled with meat and cheese, but she wants to cater to Somerville residents’ demand for healthier options. The accompanying aji sauce, made with vinegar, onion, cilantro, lime and salt, comes from a family recipe. “My grandmothers put it on everything,” Sepulveda laughs. For pop-up attendees who have a sweet tooth, she’ll also be serving her family’s tres leches cake.
The fourth and final Flavor Lounge pop-up will feature Nimco Mahamud-Hassan’s homemade Somali shawarma with creamy cilantro and garlic sauce. If you’re the pioneering type that likes to try new restaurants before anyone else even hears about them, head to P.A.’s each Saturday in June. Remember, the nature of a pop-up is it’s here and then it’s gone, so if you miss it, there’s no telling when you’ll have the chance to pop into these pop-ups again.
Flavor Lounge is happening every Saturday in June from 12:00 – 2:00 p.m. at P.A.’s Lounge, 345 Somerville Ave., Union Square, Somerville. To learn more about the Nibble Culinary Entrepreneurship Program and other food-related initiatives through the Somerville Arts Council, visit SomervilleArtsCouncil.org/Nibble.
Follow Amanda on Twitter @amandabalagur.