Restaurant review: Arepazo Tapas & Wine

From the April 26, 2012 edition

Ever eat in one of those humble mom-and-poppers with terrific ethnic food and think, “Man, this place would really be awesome if only...” and then you click off a mental checklist of creature comfort improvements that include good booze, table service plus roomier and more stylish digs? Yeah, I do that all the time, too. Well, El Arepazo has apparently read my mind on this.

I mean, how else to explain the brand new and outrageously fun Arepazo Tapas & Wine? Located out in Gahanna (a breezy 15-minute drive from my house in “Lower Clintonville”), this newbie has made every upgrade to the original Downtown model I’d been hoping for.

Inside this attractive, instantly popular Spanish and South American overachiever, black and white film-noirish woodblock art currently hangs on walls that alternate from brick to olive to burgundy-colored. Adding more ambient interest are: little punched out metal lampshades fanning out mysterious shadow patterns amid the hushed, evening-time lighting; a ’60s-ish polka-dotted banquette flashing with bright colors; a couple unobtrusive TVs beaming sports above a lively bar; an energetic soundtrack moving from upbeat, inoffensive pop tunes to kinetic Latin tracks; and wine bottles scaling a wallscape that provide a hint to the menu’s contents.

Said menu includes a small but inviting wine list that’s damn cheap (most bottles are around $20) and exclusively features Spanish and South American options. There are also beers from Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and the Dominican Republic. But don’t forget about the tropical Latin American cocktails, many of which are awash in fresh lime juice (like an orange-juicy margarita and a refreshing caipirinha). Bonus: Like the recommended house Sangria ($10/carafe, it thankfully tastes like garnacha and fruit without extraneous additives), those cocktails are fashioned for grownups (i.e. not kiddie sweet).

Foodwise, there are plenty of under-$10 lunch specials plus old favorites from the original El Arepazo (Patacon!) as well as a few fresh entrees and boldly flavored, newly introduced tapas. Frankly, I’ve quite liked everything I’ve tasted.

From the tapas, the extra-large Chorizo al Vino ($6 — seared discs of hard, Spanish-style sausage tightened by a red wine sauce) and Camarones al Ajillo ($8 — a generous plate of sauteed shrimp drenched in a garlicky and chili-flecked butter sauce) were real crowd-pleasing palate openers.

But so were the wonderful Venezuelan Empanaditas ($8). These were crispy fried and comforting coarse cornmeal pockets alternately stuffed with juicy and stewy beef, pulled chicken with jalapenos and black beans and cheese. These savory tartlettes were even better when dunked into Arepazo’s famous hot sauce — a jalapeno and cilantro aioli.

If you’re with a group, you gotta go with the massive Picada tapas platter ($15). It’s jam-packed with a perfectly fried army of palm-sized smashed plantains, absolutely fantastic yuca fries, crazy great chicharrones (golden brown deep-fried pork nuggets) plus grilled chorizo and deeply beefy — if chewy — smokily charred steak strips.

More tender eating beef arrived with the Peruvian Lomo Saltado entree ($10.50). This simple but irresistible classic was like juicy and oniony fajitas blended with french fries and served with all the trimmings.

Like fish tacos? Made with crispy fish-and-chippy-style fried cod (an upgrade over the usual tilapia) and colorfully dressed with corn, black beans, good lettuce plus an extra spicy chipotle aioli, even though they’re in flour (not corn) tortillas, you’ll find no better fish tacos than the terrific trio ($9) sold at the wholly enjoyable Arepazo Tapas and Wine.