The most common misunderstanding new customers have when approaching El Arepón is that they’re going to walk away with a platter of tacos or some other Mexican fare.
“South American food is not the same as Mexican food,” explains Richard Mendoza, the Venezuelan food truck’s co-owner. “It’s not spicy—we focus on the flavor base and not on how hot it is. Our food is fresh and tropical rather than spicy.”
Mendoza doesn’t mind needing to educate customers about Venezuelan food; in fact, he’s happy to do it. “We have to teach people that not every food truck in Omaha is a Mexican food truck,” he says.
Customers who walk up to the truck expecting tacos typically walk away with a dish of empanadas or pabellón criollo (Mendoza’s favorite) with a side of fried plantains—and they usually wind up coming back. “It starts with curiosity and then they become faithful customers,” he says.
Arepas are a popular South American dish of ground corn flour patties topped with various ingredient options: meat, eggs, tomatoes, salad, cheese, and more. Arepas give Mendoza’s food truck its name, and the dish is a cornerstone of the diet in his native country. Arepas in Venezuela could be breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack in between. At least they used to be—until the country’s food shortage became a full-blown crisis in recent years.
The food truck is Mendoza’s gift to the Omaha community that welcomed and embraced him upon his arrival in 2000 from Venezuela. It’s his hope that offering Venezuelan cuisine will help Omaha understand that Venezuela is “full of good people,” he says, adding a political opinion about the nation’s crumbling economy: “The government in Venezuela is a joke. It’s not who we are as a country, and we deserve better.”
Mendoza says that the people currently living in Venezuela—including his friends and family—are all at risk. “Nobody is safe there. My people suffer every day. They don’t even have basic necessities like toilet paper,” he says.
Venezuela’s ongoing food crisis inspired his food truck’s launch in May 2017. Mendoza wants to show his adopted home that Venezuela should be known for more than just Miss Universe; there’s also “the good culture and food and traditions that we can bring to people. This is what I can do to offer to our city’s diversity.”
Although he dreamt of opening a restaurant or food truck upon arriving in the United States, it was a trip to Venezuela with co-owner and business partner Jose Miguel Garcia in 2013 that put the plans solidly into motion. Originally from Mexico, this was Garcia’s first trip to Venezuela.
“He found Venezuela beautiful and fell in love with the people and the food,” Mendoza says. “He said that if we sell this food in the United States people will love it.” Since they didn’t have the budget to open a restaurant, they opted for the food truck instead. They figured a food truck was a safe investment and less expensive than opening a restaurant.
What he didn’t realize is that the food truck would become a mutual meeting ground for various South American populations within the city. “I didn’t know there were so many South American immigrants in Omaha!” He says that the food truck provides a place for the South American community to meet and socialize. “Some of my Colombian customers meet up at the food truck and organize outings together.” He’s pleased that his food truck helps bring people together.
He attributes the success of the food truck to a few different aspects: the people of Omaha have taken to the Venezuelan food eagerly, the food is delicious and carefully prepared while fresh, and Mendoza’s motto for the food truck: “The food has to be great, but the service has to be the greatest.”
The food served at El Arepón is authentic and fresh. “It’s all made from scratch,” Mendoza says. “Inside the truck there are no cans and nothing from preservatives.” He says everything is gluten-free and there are vegetarian and vegan menu options available, making it a welcome addition to Omaha’s food truck roster for Omahans with dietary restrictions.
For now, the El Arepón food truck can be found in the Kohl’s parking lot on South 72nd Street, right across from Nebraska Furniture Mart. The truck is also available for special events. As the days grow shorter in the colder months, their operating hours will vary. Their Facebook page (@elareponomaha) provides updated hours.
“Omaha is my home,” Mendoza says. “I’m thankful for Omaha, and I’m grateful to America. It’s the home I was looking for. I’ve learned so much from this city. This is what I can offer to them and give back a little of what I received from Omaha.”
Visit elareponomaha.com for more information.
This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.