Suddenly the 2600 block of West Lawrence, on the west end of Lincoln Square, seems like an international sandwich incubator. Along with longtime banh mi supremacists Nhu Lan Bakery and the cheesesteak church of Monti’s around the corner on Rockwell, the new kid on the block is Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar, a storefront trafficking in the arepa rellena, the stuffed cornmeal wonder of Venezuela.
There are those among you who will argue that this is no sandwich, but a food category unto itself. And that’s at least mechanically supported in that the puffed, toasty griddled corn puck isn’t completely bisected, only opened like a pocket and filled with various meats, cheeses, sauces, legumes, and vegetables. (OK, point taken, but what do you call the thing that’s falafel stuffed into pita bread?)
Just work with me. Sweet Pepper is the inspiration of Jose Navea and Andrea Andrade, a young couple formerly of the Andean city of Mérida, in northwestern Venezuela, and it’s the latest in an almost unprecedented string of Venezuelan restaurants like Bienmesabe, La Cocinita, Rica Arepa, and 11 Degrees North (RIP Aripo’s), all founded by recent arrivals who’ve escaped the chaos of their native country. We’re lucky to have them.
It’s due to these newcomers that we’ve become increasingly familiar with classic combos like La Nuestra (“Ours”), stuffed with pabelon, the Venezuelan national dish of shredded beef, black beans, sweet plantains, and cheese; the El Domino, named for its contrasting black beans and crumbled white cheese; and the chicken-salad-and-avocado Reina Pepiada (“Voluptuous Queen”), named in honor of Susana Duijm, winner of the 1955 Miss World pageant.
If you’re not hip to the classics, Sweet Pepper takes the mystery out of the arepa-stuffing process with a Chipotle-style build-your-own combo system wherein you choose a protein (barbacoa, pulled pork, shredded chicken, avocado-chicken, tuna, tofu), then add cheese, beans, and/or vegetables and a variety of sauces, like the thin guac variant guasacaca, or the sweet and spicy aji pepper relish that the restaurant is named for, a specialty of Mérida.
The arepas’ crisp outer layer bulges around the ample fillings Andrade and Navea pack into their soft, faintly sweet interiors. They’re durable little bassinets, but inevitably there’s some fallout, so if you prefer to work with a fork and bowl from the start, you can apply the formula over rice, salad, or plantains. Still, that’s denying yourself a singular hand-to-mouth experience.
They’re frying their own yuca and plantain chips at Sweet Pepper, and bottling a few juices like mango, passion fruit, and papelon, a lemonade gently sweetened with cane and brown sugar that almost tastes like an unfermented tepache. There are a few desserts too, but the folks behind Sweet Pepper are specialists, focusing on a superhero of the sandwich universe, here in the company of its kind.
Sweet Pepper Venezuelan Food Bar 2604 W. Lawrence, 872-208-5665, facebook.com/sweetpepperchicago