A Taste of Venezuela

Amara Barroeta keeps her culture alive through arepas and coffee

Amara Barroeta’s intimate coffeeshop, Amara Chocolate & Coffee, is bustling. A film crew interviews Barroeta in the corner, while family members quickly serve those at the front counter.   

Guests laugh, say “cheers” with coffee cups and devour croissants. Amara Chocolate & Coffee is like Barroeta’s public living room. Here, she shares treats from her home country of Venezuela.

“So many restaurants and businesses are owned by immigrants,” Barroeta says. “It’s so hard to open a business and get people to come over. If you’re a small business, there isn’t a crazy amount of monetary resources.”

Barroeta’s resources were few when she moved to California from Venezuela to pursue her master’s degree in chemical engineering at UCLA. She didn’t plan on staying in the United States until Venezuela’s political climate became so turbulent that she felt she didn’t have a choice but to remain in Pasadena.

“We fled the country a while back,” she says. “I was expecting to go back to Venezuela, but things were not well. I worked in (television) media in Venezuela. We were persecuted. If you thought differently than the government, you were persecuted.

“I had the dream of opening Amara in Venezuela. I worked on recipes. I saw the perfect opportunity here. It was a way to restart my life.”

On March 15, in the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Amara celebrated its eighth anniversary. She attributes the award-winning shop’s success to “a lot of hard work.”

“It took time for people to grasp what we’re doing and where we’re from and creating that connection,” Barroeta says. “I just watched what was happening, what was working and what wasn’t, restructured and did it again.

“I am an engineer by trade. I think I’m very methodic. My husband was an orthopedic surgeon in Venezuela. We figured out what we wanted to achieve, how we were going to do it and how to fulfill that promise to our clients and employees.”

Her husband, Alexander, moved to Pasadena five years ago and he joins her in the coffee shop venture.

She calls Madrid-style churros con chocolate ($9.85) “a must.” The platter comes with six churros, a cup of Amara’s award-winning sipping chocolate and whipped cream on the side.

The arepas (rounded corn meal pockets) are popular as well, as they come in 10 varieties—beef, chicken or pork; albacore tuna; vegan; black beans; beef with melted cheese; pork with cheese; chicken breast salad; cheesy avocado; chicken breast simmered in a honey-tomato sauce; and roasted beef with Venezuelan cheese. They range in price from $10.15 to $12.85.

“It’s like our bread and we fill it with different things,” Barroeta says.

Barroeta says she’s still mastering the art of cachapas, grilled housemade yellow corn pancakes ($9.99 to $14.99).

“They’re really simple. It’s like a yellow corn pancake. It’s really, really rich and hard to make,” she says. “The corn here is so different than in Venezuela. Corn has a different texture and taste from the ones we have in Venezuela.”

Her menu is rounded out with breakfast, entrée salads, hot plates, hot baguettes and “made in heaven”—an apropos name for desserts. The recipes are variations of those by her “two beautiful grandmothers”—one was 100% Venezuelan and the other was Spanish. They didn’t document the recipes, other than to say, “a little of this, a little of that.”

“Most of my recipes come from them,” she says. “Usually, the adults like to kick the children out of the kitchen. They didn’t. They included me in the task of peeling veggies. It’s then you understand the love you put in food.

“The kitchen is the center of the house. Most of the time the women do the work. People don’t understand the importance of it and how hard it is. It gave me the value of food, values and friendship.”

Barroeta took her grandmothers’ recipes and adjusted them into weight so the recipes could be repeated by employees in a consistent manner.

“You could be an amazing cook with all of these recipes, but you have to have the right amount of spices,” she says. “Everyone thinks there’s one chef who works all the time. It’s a romantic idea. I have to have the recipes handy so anyone can make them.”

Barroeta hopes to inspire families to congregate and dine together, without electronics in the way. Barroeta’s hospitality and homemade dishes have attracted the likes of professional baseball players from Venezuela like the Arizona Diamondbacks’ David Peralta. Together, she and her Venezuelan customers share stories of the hardships in the South American country.

“I like to see the bright side of things,” she says. “We never, as Venezuelans, went out and emigrated and did things to survive. Now we’re all over the world. We went through really difficult times and I think now people are getting to know our culture better.

“This is coming from someone who survived. Now we’re chefs, we open businesses and we offer something new. People are so detached from their families and their heritage and their culture. I feel it’s important to feel that we’re not alone in the universe. There’s something behind us who made us who we are.”

With each dish, Barroeta is celebrating her family, heritage and culture.

“My grandmothers both passed,” she says. “They live through every dish. When you have a country at the verge of war, all of these things are left behind. But we’re surviving. We’re taking care of our loved ones.

“There, people don’t have access to basic groceries like they used to have before. People like myself, and other chefs and people around the world, are preserving that for a whole other generation. I want to teach my daughter arepas and churros so she can feel connected to my grandmothers. It’s really beautiful and I have this opportunity in Pasadena.”