If you’ve developed a love affair with arepas, the deliciously versatile Venezuelan corn flatbreads – which are now available at restaurants including Anytime Arepa at Zócalo Food Park, Arepanita’s Cafe in Waukesha, Arepa’s Place in Brookfield and La Caribena on the South Side – there’s amazing news on the horizon.
That's because Anytime Arepa owners Maria Salas and Leo Farfan, have signed on to be tenants at the forthcoming 3rd Street Market Hall, a food hall which will open its doors with a roster of tenants that includes anchor tenant Dairyland Old Fashioned Hamburgers & Frozen Custard, Mid-Way Bakery, Supernova Coffee & Doughnuts, at least two plant-based vendors, four hawker stall tenants and a few more vendors that will be announced very soon.
And if you’ve never tried the delicious arepas that Farfan and Salas offer at their food trailer at Zócalo Food Park, 636 S. 6th St., it’s high time you gave it a try.
Not only are they delicious Venezuelan comfort food at its finest, they are filled to the brim with the love, passion and determination of a family who traveled over 2,500 miles to establish a new life for themselves.
Flavors that taste like home
Farfan and Salas, natives of Venezuela, came to the U.S. with their two sons via Florida in 2015. Like so many immigrants, they hoped to start a business selling traditional Venezuelan food. But, after finding the Florida market flooded with other vendors attempting to do the same, they heeded the advice of a longtime friend, who beckoned them to Milwaukee, a market with fewer Venezuelan immigrants and customers eager to try new items.
Farfan says they started with a food product they knew: the arepa, a corn-based flatbread which is versatile enough that it’s often eaten for breakfast, with lunch or dinner and even as a late night snack (hence the name Anytime Arepa).
“We looked to use our food as an interpreter,” says Salas, “To teach people about ourselves and our culture. Arepas are our everyday food in Venezuela. Every family makes arepas in the morning, and you can smell them grilling. Every family has their own recipes for the filling.”
With the help of their teenage sons, the husband and wife duo launched their business selling at local farmers markets. They began with the Harbor Market in Kenosha in 2018, serving options like arepas filled with traditional pulled brisket seasoned with a sofrito paste made with onions, red peppers and garlic.
“The flavor of our shredded beef is the flavor I remember from home,” says Farfan. “It’s the flavor of our country. Our family. Our business.”
The flavors, says Farfan, also connected them to their home, a place which – all too often – felt worlds away.
“The avocado salsa always reminds me of when I was a boy and we went to the beach,” he says. “And we were in the water all day and we were so hungry. And then we’d all eat the arepas and they tasted so good and fresh…”
Memories are also wrapped into the Salas family’s recipe for slow-cooked pork, which is marinated in citrus juices, wine and herbs including oregano and then braised until succulently tender.
“In Venezuela, we would prepare the pork primarily for Christmas,” Salas says. “My father would prepare the pork butt with the bone in and the entire building would smell so delicious”
Farfan smiles and nods his head in Salas’ direction. “Maria puts magic into our family recipes,” he says. “The pork is my father-in-law’s recipe. But Maria took that recipe and made it taste so perfect.”
With plenty of help from their delicious offerings, Farfan says business took off, slowly but surely.
“We started from scratch,” says Farfan. “We had a tent and a grill. And our two sons worked with us. We started small, hoping for the best. At the time, very few people knew what an arepa was, so we spent a lot of time teaching. Fortunately, the response was very positive.”
But by October, Farfan and Salas found themselves facing a Wisconsin inevitability: the fall and winter weather. So, they scrambled, looking for indoor venues where they could continue selling their arepas. They settled on the indoor market at Milaeger’s, and – after some research – signed up as a vendor for Fooda, a business which brings catered lunches to corporate clients.
“Working with Fooda saved our life,” he says. “And we were able to travel all over serving lunch to large companies including GE and Aurora Healthcare.”
The move to Zócalo
The following summer (2019), Salas and Farfan had a chance meeting with Sean Phelan of Phelan Development at the Shorewood Farmers Market. Phelan told them about the Zócalo Food Park on which he’d partnered with Jesus Gonzalez and invited them to sell their arepas there as a guest vendor. They accepted.
That decision, says Farfan, changed everything.
By January, Phelan and Gonzalez approached them again, asking if they’d be interested in participating in the Zócalo incubator program, which would supply them with a food truck (temporarily), business mentorship and a one year contract at the food park.
The couple agreed, and in April of 2020, they began selling their arepas on a full-time basis at Zócalo Food Park. The timing wasn’t perfect, admits Farfan, noting that they started with the program just after the shutdown for the COVID-19 pandemic went into effect. At first, their sales plummeted, he says, and it was difficult for at least the first six months. But they persisted.
“We were so lucky,” says Farfan. “We already had CashDrop in place, and that was a lifesaver. People adapted quickly and it allowed us to do business. For us it was important to give our customers options. So we also signed up for delivery services including Eat Street, DoorDash and GrubHub. And that was what helped us to get through the pandemic.”
Farfan and Salas were also the recipients of vital grant funding from the City of Milwaukee, which they are using to purchase their own trailer.
“We were so lucky to have their support,” says Farfan. “And we are grateful, so we are investing that money back into the city. We’ll be purchasing our own trailer, so we can give back the Zócalo trailer for someone else to use. We love that it will give another entrepreneur the opportunity to try out their concept like we were able to do.”
The menu: 3rd Street Market Hall
Anytime Arepa will occupy a 400 square foot stall located just to the west of the food hall’s bar. The space will feature a wooden counter, Farfan says, which pays homage to the wooden counter they built to use under their tent when they started selling arepas at the Harbor Market.
“We want it to be welcoming,” he says, “And we are building it to be open so that people are able to see how the arepas are made.Our food is very fresh and I think when you experience that, you want to see how we make it.”
The menu is currently under development, says Farfan, but will include current menu offerings including beef, pork, chicken and vegetable arepas, along with the breakfast arepas they serve at the local markets.
But there will also be new offerings, including new arepa options. Among them is a Venezuelan classic: the reina pepiada (also known as the Queen arepa) filled with shredded chicken, fresh avocado and mayonnaise. It’s an arepa said to be named in homage to Susana Dujim, who won the Miss World pageant in 1955.
Salas says she will also be making Venezuelan empanadas, a fried treat made with arepa dough that’s filled, folded into a half-moon shape, sealed and deep-fried. Guests can also look forward to desserts, including tres leches cake.
Farfan says that the move to the food hall will allow the family to grow their business, which they started as a means of survival.
“Anytime Arepa is the result of a need for success, to make a living,” says Farfan. “But it also comes with a commitment to help our families in Venezuela. My mom is there, my in-laws are there, and we work so that they can have a better life. We also want to help and support other businesses in our community.”
Farfan says they owe their success to so many people, but most importantly their customers.
“It feels so good to be so appreciated here when we are so far away from where we were born,” says Farfan. “It’s incredible. And we are so excited.”
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.