KL's first Venezuelan restaurant offers homey food and a heart-warming welcome

Empanadas, made from yellow maize flour imported from Venezuela, with various fillings.
Empanadas, made from yellow maize flour imported from Venezuela, with various fillings.PHOTOS: AZHAR MAHFOF

(THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The first Venezuelan restaurant in Klang Valley is exactly like its co-owner, director and head chef Fabiana Zambrano. Exceptionally warm and welcoming, simple and unfussy, El Maiz is a bastion of food with all the allure of true home cooking.

Zambrano has been catering for a year in Kuala Lumpur and thought it was time to introduce the food of her birth country to her adopted home by opening a restaurant with her husband, Jose Zabala.

“There is more to Latin American food than tacos, burritos and mojitos and I wanted to show that,” said Zambrano.

“All my food is cooked with no pork and no alcohol, so that more people can try it – that’s also why we keep the prices affordable.”

Owner and head chef Fabiana Zambrano opened El Maiz to introduce more people in Kuala Lumpur to the cuisine of her home country.

Her welcome extends to little humans as well - with a tiny, toy-filled tent and special child-sized table and chair in one corner, El Maiz is a very child-friendly place. “I’m a mother myself, so I want parents to be able to come with their children and have a good time,” she said.

With its incredible biodiversity and wealth of cultural influences - from the Spanish conquistadors to Portuguese, French and West African, among others - Venezuelan cuisine tends to have great regional differences.

But corn – corn is a fixture, a pillar of a cuisine at once fascinatingly new to KL and yet with enough familiar aspects to be comforting. Other constants in the Venezuelan repertoire of recipes include rice and beans, plaintains and yams, but corn is such a culinary icon – as it is to many Latin American food cultures – that El Maiz has taken its name from it.

The restaurant’s opening menu is small and focused - you will find certain items crossing over from dish to dish in various forms, firm favourites, such as pulled beef or black beans.

This kind of gentle introduction is wise; it allows for gradual exploration and laid-back learning. In January 2018, an expanded menu will be made available.

If you are new to the cuisine, then your journey should begin with an arepa – or three. It is an everyday staple in Venezuela, a versatile pocket made from ground white maize flour, that can be split to house meat, cheese and vegetables.

Arepas are a pre-Colombian food, from the Timoto-Cuica people, a multi-tribe group indigenous to the Andean region of western Venezuela.

“This is the main thing to us, the arepas, they are the most important – it is the first solid food we eat as children,” said Zambrano.

If you are choosing off the breakfast menu, the basic arepa is RM5 (S$1.70) and then you can add fillings such as pulled chicken curry (RM10) or eggs scrambled with tomatoes, onions and red peppers (RM9).

El Maiz’s simple, sunny interior.

At lunch and dinner, the arepas range from RM17 to RM25 for a set of two. Fillings include the spiced pulled beef – juicy and flavourful, with a nice chew – and cheese, the same beef with richly sweet plaintains, avocado and black beans, or the arepas with avocado chicken salad that is known as Reina Pepiada.

Arepas are a staple for Venezuelans; at El Maiz, choose from classic fillings such as pulled beef and chicken or fusion options like seafood tom yam (above).

“This was invented when the first Venezuelan Miss World was crowned,” said Zambrano.

‘Pepiada’ to us is beautiful, stylish, curvaceous, how one carries oneself”.

In addition to the eight more traditional filling combinations you can choose, there are also two tinged with Asian influences: rendang and tom yam seafood.

We tried tom yam seafood – perfectly cooked shrimp, squid and chunks of fish were swathed in a gently aromatic, slight tangy tom yam coating, sandwiched within the aromatic arepas. Small but very filling, the arepas have all the fragrant appeal of corn, with a slightly mealy, crumbly texture.

Zambrano uses the white and yellow pre-cooked maize flour from Venezuela at the restaurant; while the white is for the arepas, the more robust yellow is used for crisp empanadas, stuffed with various fillings.

At RM21 for three, choose from the classic pulled beef or chicken, or a minced fish filling; the latter has very finely minced fish, resulting in a bouncy bite to the filling.

The tequenos are so popular that Zambrano even has frozen versions for people to cook at home.

The large portion of Pabellon Criollo, another staple which combines pulled beef with stewed black beans, fried plaintains and avocado.

The tequenos, mozzarella cheese sticks in a bread-like batter, are altogether too easy to snack on, served with a housemade tartare sauce that is anything but run-of-the-mill.

At RM17 for just the cheese sticks and RM19 for cheese combined with turkey ham, these are one of the restaurant’s most popular offerings, according to Zambrano. They are so popular that she also sells frozen versions for people entertaining at home.

The sauces at El Maiz deserve a special mention like the refreshingly piquant, vibrantly green guasacaca - smooth and thick and made with avocados, lime and parsley.

Even Fabiana’s tartare sauce is a stand-out – with wonderfully subtle, refreshing flavour combining tangy nuances and fresh green herbs, it also has a wonderfully wispy, silky texture. It should be bottled and sold on its own.

For a satisfying rice-based meal, try the Pabellon Criollo (RM40), a large serving of shredded beef with rice, sticky-sweet fried plaintains and amazingly savoury, moreish black beans cooked with onions and peppers. Zambrano adds avocado slices to her version.

“It’s an everyday dish for us – I always tell people, this is like our version of nasi lemak!” said Zambrano.

The sweet, luscious torta tres leches.

For dessert, the torta tres leches (three milk cake, RM17) is an absolute must-have. Soaked with a mixture of condensed, evaporated and cream, the cake has a moist, bite-y crumb and Zambrano adds a crown of creamy Italian meringue with a hint of cinnamon on the top. Definitely lovely.

The caramel-sauced flan comes in three flavours: classic, cappuccino and coconut.

Quesillo (RM15), or milk flan, is also popular – this is a slightly eggy, smooth custard bathed in a pleasantly bittersweet caramel. Opt for the coconut version made with the shaved fruit, if you want more texture.

El Maiz is a welcome window into Venezuelan cuisine and offers dishes that have just the right combination of accessibility with a hint of that “something different” that many KL diners are drawn to – all with the irresistible draw of home cooking.

El Maiz 

Lot A-G-1 Menara AmpleWest @Menara 6, No. 6 Jalan Puncak, Kuala Lumpur.
Tel: 03-2022 1733
Open Mondays to Saturdays, 10am to 10pm, Sundays and public holidays, 11am to 6pm