Arepa Dealers Sling Venezuelan Snacks and Coffee at Cuatro Gato

At Coconut Club's all-day cafe the heart is an arepa

(l-r) Elmer Ferro, Anissa del Rosario Schiek, José Tomás (JT) García, Suxxy Ramírez, Cole Evans, and Brian Almaraz (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Arepas are not a mere livelihood to Anissa del Rosario Schiek and José Tomás García. They are South America; they are their grandmothers; they are community, evolution, and brightness in a dark time. Now, they are Austin, and Arepas Dealers are bringing their Venezuelan snacks to pair with fine coffee and a friendly DIY spirit to the Downtown area at Cuatro Gato Cafe. García says, "This is our everyday food."

Arepa Dealers originated in 2016 by García, a Venezuelan asylum seeker trying to find a hustle in Madrid's Lavapiés neighborhood. As the diaspora is relatively young and still spreading globally, he seized his chance to market his national food to late-night snackers. Applying his photography degree and aesthetic eye to create a tangible catalog of his goods, and marketing his early transactions like a drug deal (a spot of dark humor to cope with life's upheavals), he gained a following – the most important of whom was Anissa, now his wife. A few years later, utilizing influence from del Rosario Schiek's Filipino heritage, a green card, and several pop-up iterations, Arepa Dealers now has a permanent home in the former Papadom space at 310-A Colorado St. in Downtown Austin, next door to Coconut Club.

Cuatro Gato Cafe (a nod to the sad-looking tigers of the Coco Club brand) is the creative partnership between Brian Almaraz and Cole Evans, owners of Coconut Club; Sussie Ramírez, general manager and coffee connect; and the Arepa Dealers, including Elmer Ferro, main "dealer." This collaboration came about organically for the club owners, who always planned to expand next door with a food concept. Ferro was brought into the fold due to a shared Venezuelan heritage and global chef experience. Ramírez, aka DJ Suxxy Puxxy, had a standing relationship with Coconut Club, tied it all together, and headed up the coffee program. Ramírez and Almaraz took a road trip to Monterrey this summer to collect furnishings and flair, and to solidify a deal with Ramírez's cousin Marcelo, importer of specialty coffee beans from Mexico. The result is a modest yet lively cafeteria-style space with front-and-center personal touches from all partners, and the exclusive Folka coffee on display alongside a chalkboard menu.

Guests at Cuatro Gato have four arepas to pick from (often festively colored with vegetable juices), as well as sides, baked goods, and an occasional wild card offering. On their concept, García comments, "We have a motto that we use as a guideline – 'everything fits in the arepa' – to show the world how the arepa is a vessel to bring flavors together." Local chefs, get in touch: These folks mean to collaborate.

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Ferro, whose exuberance for food and friendship is well-known locally, explains the background of a menu staple: "The inspiration is traditional Peruvian stew – ají de gallina – spiced and finished with cream, and our take for a dairy-free crowd features coconut milk to round out the flavors of caramelized garlic, ají amarillo pepper, and toasted masa." This arepa comes sprinkled with fried shallots, and the juiciness works well with the fluffy, chewy arepa.

The basis for their pork arepa is del Rosario Schiek's grandmother's carnitas recipe. Marinated in soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and vinegar, the finished arepa is garnished with pickled green papaya, carrot, and scallion sauce. Her Filipino influence is also seen in the "Putos" that glue the menu together – adorable, chewy rice-flour cakes great for any time of day.

García's birria-style preparation of a brisket cut of beef results in a lower-fat arepa filling that delivers on flavor but remains accessible, and you can't go wrong with a griddled corn cake and tender beef. He said, "In Latin America, corn is king. You know there's something familiar, when you try an arepa for the first time and you recognize that it is close to what a taco can be, but the bread is soft and friendly. In Venezuela, our version of masa (corn dough) is fresh, so we grind the corn without doing the nixtamalization like Mexicans would. This results in a mild corn flavor and allows the filling to speak for itself." Arepa Dealers makes their dough, rather than buying a preserved corn flour product.

“We have a motto that we use as a guideline – ‘everything fits in the arepa’ – to show the world how the arepa is a vessel to bring flavors together.” – José Tomás García, Arepa Dealers

The menu also features a baked Venezuelan roll in savory, cheesy, or sweet profiles as a no-brainer partner with coffee drinks like the Dirty Abuelita (mocha coffee), or a dairy-free horchata adapted from Ramírez's grandmother. Rotating finger foods fill in the gaps – teqeños, mozzarella sticks in dough, or tostones, twice-fried Caribbean green plantain. The two house sauces, Wasakaka!, a take on chimichurri with avocado, and an ají pepper-based pink sauce, go well with every item and are now available in 8-oz. retail jars.

The special nature of the house coffee brand, Folka, comes down to a progressive approach to farmer relationships. "Mexican coffee has traditionally been inconsistent, harder than other markets to maintain relationships with small farmers," Almaraz explains. "Marcelo is creating a system where he gets similar beans from a lot of farmers in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Veracruz, maintaining a consistent product. He keeps farmers paid well, regardless of market fluctuations."

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Ramírez notes, "In Chiapas, a few farmers have been willing to experiment, allowing the roasting to be done in Monterrey. Our three roasts are suited to cold brew, drip, and espresso. We are proud that these beans are beyond fair trade." Every item on her menu aims to cover every type of guest, from the hungover to the office-dweller: House coconut syrup tempers the cold brew, while a custom spice blend touches the Café de Olla. Topo Preparado offers a touch of lime and healing bubbles, and a scratch Golden Mylk and matcha latte warm guests in cold weather.

The resilience and adaptability of Arepa Dealers is clear when talking to García and del Rosario Schiek, who have traversed the globe to be together and now share a vision of a food-based community. As a young business, they've interspersed pop-ups with catering gigs and rolled out arepa assembly "survival kits" for devotees. Now as a brick-and-mortar, they aren't set on any one menu or business model. "We've been through a lot already, but one advantage to our team is that we are young, flexible, and will do whatever it takes to get arepas to people," says García. The team has high hopes for the local market. They're working on plans for independent curbside and delivery operations, and have used tactics like virtual classes to stay connected with patrons.

Resourcefulness is at the center of García and del Rosario Schiek's gritty, comic-styled alter egos, who deal arepas on dark street corners out of trench coat pockets and remind you that snitches get stitches. From the team's Instagram: "From a 6ft table to a cafe in Downtown Austin. So much to be grateful for in this weird ass year. From Venezuela to Austin, from a couple to a family, from a dictatorship to a democracy, from taco to arepa, from cooking from home to a full restaurant, from social to distant, from nothing to something, from being broke to... just kidding, we're still broke, but not alone, not anymore."

For now, Cuatro Gato remains an all-day cafe (Tue.-Thu. 11am-8pm; Fri.-Sun. 11am-11pm) with service to Coconut Club's vibe-seekers by night. Thanks to the Arepa Dealers at Cuatro Gato, Downtown Austin can enjoy the murals of cheeky Peruvian street artist INSU, connect with the Venezuelan diaspora, and relish in a juicy $7 snack. As Ferro put it, "My heart is an arepa." Maybe you'll find a little heart there, too.

[Editor's note: We corrected the spelling of Brian Almaraz, and regret the error.]

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