A ‘Top Chef’ Alum Gives the Humble Arepa a Colorful, Personal Makeover

Lorena's arepa basket | Photo Credit: Anthony Mair/Chica

Welcome back to OpenTable’s Signature Dish column, in which we take a look at a restaurant’s standout item and how it rose to the top. Below are very personal arepas from Chica by Lorena Garcia, a former Top Chef contestant.

At Latin destination restaurant Chica in Miami and Las Vegas, the arepa basket is so much more than just an appetizer.

The colorful arepas basket, in black bean, beet, and cilantro flavors, is a distinctive riff on the Latin cuisine staple that has become her signature dish, meant to set the tone for a meal at Chica.

“It’s an immediate connection for my customer with my culture, how I grew up, and my flavors, which is very important to me,” acclaimed chef Lorena Garcia says. “But it was also very important to me to have technique and a point of view that elevates Latin cuisine to be gourmet, high-end, and at the same time, accessible. That little basket, let me tell you, it does magic!”

Garcia rose to fame after competing on Top Chef Masters in 2012 and appearing as a guest chef on a season of Top Chef All Stars. The former law student turned pro chef has an affable, warm personality, so it’s no surprise she’s penned two cookbooks and has numerous television cameos under her belt aside from the Bravo favorite. Garcia frequently appears in both English and Spanish on Univision and Telemundo and was a judge on America’s Next Top Restaurants. Over the years, she opened many restaurants, but Chica, open in 2017 in Las Vegas and 2019 in Miami, is her most well-known.

Lorena Garcia

Lorena Garcia | Photo Credit: Chica

Chica’s arepas come in a trifecta of vibrant flavors and colors, thanks to pressed juices made from black beans, beets, or cilantro. They’re then incorporated into a tortilla-like dough that Garcia says becomes “nice and crispy outside, fluffy inside, and super delicious” once fried. The cooked arepas are tossed with Kosher salt and served alongside nata butter with spicy pequin pepper. The spreadable raw cow milk condiment is a nod to Garcia’s Venezuelan roots.

“In Venezuela, instead of using butter regularly, we use nata butter, which is almost like a sour cream but more with the consistency of butter; it’s citrusy, creamy, mild, and melts really nicely,” she says. The entire dish is an ode to Garcia’s heritage growing up in Venezuela.

She estimates her restaurants churn out 3,000 arepas a week between both locations. “We make so many that our heads are spinning,” she says, laughing, while acknowledging that they’re a must on any Chica menu, even future locations.

“Arepas are something I grew up with since I was child, it’s the first breakfast I ever created for my family, to have as a ‘picnic’ in the middle of the living room when I was six or seven years old,” she recalls. “It’s so much of my culture, but I give it a different touch.”

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Alexandra Ilyashov is an NYC-based (and -bred) freelance writer and editor covering fascinating people and trends in food, fashion, wellness, and entertainment, for New YorkEaterT, and more.