Loop restaurant gives insight to Venezuelan culture

For many, the restaurant BienMeSabe gives a taste of Venezuelan food. But for Venezuelan natives, this restaurant is a gateway to their culture, their people and their home. 

The BienMeSabe restaurant chain has two locations – one in the northern Ravenswood neighborhood and one in the Loop near the Adams/Wabash L station.

For Venezuelans like Maria Veronica Padron, a prep cook at BienMeSabe, the staple dish, the arepa, reminds her of her roots.

She said that every time she bites into an arepa, she remembers moments with her family in Venezuela.  

“[It takes me back to] breakfast at home with my family,” Padron said. “There’s such a great selection of arepas [here at BienMeSabe], it’s as if each day I’m eating a different one. It feels like I am at home, far away from the U.S.” 

Her coworkers shared that they also feel far away from their native Venezuela. 

Miguel Rodriguez, a line cook and cashier who prepares the arepas, said he misses his relatives from his home country.

“I mostly miss my family,” Rodriguez said. “And of course, I miss the beaches and the landscapes.”

The political climate in Venezuela has increased tension and to many Venezuelan natives, it’s not a surprise that it has pushed many to escape their country of origin. The crisis has pushed the people of this South American country to severe poverty.

This poverty has not only opened the door for Venezuelan people to be malnourished, but has also decreased their health care provision.

“The Venezuelan population is facing unprecedented challenges in accessing essential services, including protection, healthcare, medicines, vaccinations, water, electricity, education and access to food,” according to Reuters

Despite Venezuelans need to immigrate to another country, they still find ways to take their cuisine with them. 

By making their staple dish of the arepa a new food trend, they keep their own traditions still alive. 

Rodriguez said the new availability of the arepa in the Chicago area is what makes it so attractive. 

“Because we are new in the Loop, [we have repeat clientele],” Rodriguez said. “We have become trendy.” 

For Padron, the food is said to not only bring Venezuelans together, but has also attracted different people aside from Venezuelans who are trying the food and getting to know the culture. 

“Venezuelans do come here to eat,” Padron said. “But, our customers are mainly Americans. They love the food and like to buy the malta.”

Malta is a carbonated malt drink with origins from the Caribbean. This drink is shared amongst various Latino countries, and is said to be similar to a sweet soft drink in Venezuela. 

This sweet soft drink seems popular, according to Padron. She said the customers who come to BienMeSabe not only love the drinks, but also the variety of food choices – there are a variety of arepas to fit everyone’s taste at BienMeSabe.

“We have everything you could want,” Padron said. “We have pork, we have Pabellón, Reina Pepiada, multiple cheese options [and] we also have vegetarian options like tofu on the menu. A lot of variety for people with their own taste.” 

For Angelo Nouvelle, another native and a line cook for the restaurant, the arepa has historical significance shared shared amongst other countries in South America.

“I know a little bit about the history of the arepa,” Nouvelle said. “The arepa belongs to the Northern indigenous people of South America.”

He said that the arepa dish not only exists in Venezuela, but also neighboring countries as well.

“We share it with Colombia,” Nouvelle said. “The arepa is a tribute to the indigenous…they cultivated corn. Just like Mexicans have their tortillas, we have arepas in South America. It’s a cultural inheritance.” 

But the arepa is not the only staple dish from Venezuela. 

“The most common food item is the Pabellón,” Nouvelle said. “We serve it in a bowl form and in arepa form. It has meat, black beans, white rice and fried plantains.” 

For Padron, in other areas of Venezuela like Puerto De La Cruz, the Pabellón dish can be served in different ways. 

“It’s the typical dish because there are so many variations,” Padron said. “I like it because [where I’m from] it’s common to substitute the meat for fish. It’s very delicious and very filling.”  

Not only are the dishes said to give South American natives memories of their home country, but it also gives others a historical perspective of the culture. Padron said the food at the restaurant allows people to learn what South American culture is like. 

“We show off our culture here,” Padron said. “We want our customers to get to know us.”

She said she wants to provide a safe space for customers to feel like they can get a distraction after a long day. 

“The food is really good and we want everyone to feel like they’re at home,” she said. “They can get distracted from their long day of work, which is really exhausting. We try to make them feel good here.” 

But Venezuelan culture is not only made up by its food, but also by the characteristics of its people. 

Nouvelle said Venezuelans distinguish themselves with their positivity. 

“We like to tell jokes and have a lot of fun,” Nouvelle said. “We have a saying that we like to use in everyday life that goes, ‘In bad times, show a good face,’” he said. 

For others, like Rodriguez, the peoples’ unity is what distinguishes Venezuelans.

“I love the unity everyone has, between families and everyone in general,” Rodriguez said.

From the culture, to the people and even the variety of Venezuela’s staple foods: BienMeSabe gives natives and Chicagoans alike a taste of the South American country. 

Read this story in Spanish here.