For someone who gets to experience street food around the world, First Fridays on Abbot Kinney is a bit of a culture shock. The last time I was there, an angry shop owner screamed at the owner of the Gourmet Genie truck before kicking his passenger side door in. Sad to say I was standing there with a camera and didn’t think to document it.
But today, the flames of food truck hatred have died out and the streets are flooded with bearded bros and entourages of skinny blonde models (one even looked like a young Jerry Hall). It’s like Burning Man with clothes and food trucks. I received a tip that a new truck was showing up, but my visibility was hindered by the tornado of man buns. Then suddenly—arepas!
My previous disappointments at Café Bolivar and the Coupa Café—even at Mil Jugos, which was arguably the area’s best Venezuelan restaurant—have left me thinking arepas are only for New Yorkers. But, Julio Cesar Falcon Palacios had a dream of changing that perception and bringing real arepas to L.A.; in the Fall of 2015, the Zema Latin Vibes truck began its mission.
Each arepa is made to order, which found Julio and his crew a little behind on orders, so after a long wait, my cachapa de queso de mano—a corn cake stuffed with Venezuelan cheese—came out first. Sweet and moist with a nice saltiness from the cheese, it was so good that I was happy to wait for my arepa.
But, if you don’t have a cachapa in your hand, there’s more than enough people watching to keep you busy. One surprised Westsider freaked out when he received his arepa, “Dude, I thought this was a taco; man, you shoulda warned me.” A very patient Julio asked him to just give it a try—“Fuck, these are even better than tacos! Does Venezuela have tacos, too?”
Finally, my order was up, an arepa de pabellón, with black beans, cheese, vegetables, and a rich stew of shredded beef cooked in a creole sofrito called carne mechado. The arepa by itself is delicious, fresh, and has a variety of playfully titled fillings like the Blonde (chicken and vegetables), the Parakeet (scrambled eggs), and Porky Pig (roasted pork). But the pabellón delivered big flavor, each component melding with the toasted corn pocket.
It’s hard to find a 5-minute stretch without some Beavis and Butthead-like observations as drunk 20-somethings walked up, “No way, they have fucking cheese fingers, let’s get some!” Those would be tequeños, Venezuelan cheese sticks that are rolled in flour then fried, not exactly “fucking cheese fingers.” After another sweaty, drunk Abbot Kinneyan plowed into me from behind, it was time to leave.
What’s clear about First Fridays is that L.A. food truck culture is as strong as ever. The survivors of the food truck wars: Kogi, Grilled Cheese, Dogtown, and Coolhaus were all there, and many new trucks as well including the serious new contender, Zema Latin Vibes. Abbot Kinneyites may not know jack shit about the food they’re getting, but they sure do love food trucks and the sensation of curbside dining.
Forget every Venezuelan place you’ve ever tried in L.A. before Zema, and experience what makes these South American comfort foods—arepas and cachapas—all the local rage. I would even brave the unruly herd at First Fridays again (I feel safer in a Rio favela to tell you the truth) just to eat at Zema, but I’ll be sure and wear a helmet next time.