Surprising Latin American Charmer in Falls Church

Photograph by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg

La Caraqueña chef/owner Raul Claros shows charm in the dining room and finesse in the kitchen.

Food lovers are generally ambivalent about hotel dining. Luxe properties with the power to lure top toques account for some of the best restaurants in the world. Then there’s the flip side—generic, passionless cooking served in a setting that has all the charm of a waiting room. About motel dining, there’s fierce consensus: absolutely not.

La Caraqueña is next to a faded motel on West Broad Street in Falls Church, and if you didn’t know what awaited you inside, you might drive right by. The first night I went there, a young couple stalked through the motel parking lot, shouting drunkenly, then slamming the door to their room. Cars peeled in and out. (There was, I can report, no such drama on subsequent visits.)

But inside is a rare lineup of Venezuelan, Bolivian, and Chilean dishes, all presented attractively and often with a flourish. The server in most instances is chef/owner Raul Claros, who strides through the room bearing plates with all the aplomb of a bow-tied waiter. It’s no empty gesture: The cooking has a polish and refinement seldom found in the area’s other Latin American restaurants.

If only for its arepas—thick corn cakes typically filled with meats and cheeses and as essential to the Venezuelan diet as burgers to the American—La Caraqueña would be an important addition to the dining scene. You can order them griddled or fried. I like them fried, which brings out their deep corn flavor and changes their color to resemble the sun at high noon. The menu lists nearly a dozen varieties, including ham-and-cheese; a version filled with the marinated, shredded beef known as carne mechada; and another stuffed with scrambled eggs and onions. They make for gloriously messy and satisfying overstuffed sandwiches. But a plain, unaccompanied arepa—called a viuda, or “widow”—is no less wonderful.

Salteñas aren’t hard to come by in the Washington area; in Virginia especially, they’re ubiquitous. But although I’ve enjoyed many excellent versions of these flaky, hand-held meat pies, I haven’t found any as good as the ones here. None strike so perfect a balance between sweet and savory, soupy and solid, hearty and delicate.

You could put together an inexpensive and rewarding meal by ordering any of the arepas or salteñas and either a corn salad—kernels mixed with a light mayo dressing, celery, cilantro, and lime juice and served over romaine lettuce—or a bowl of one of the two soups. The black bean is marvelous, laced with bits of smoky chorizo and garnished with cilantro. The peanut soup is even better, complex and rich, with a sophistication that summons the work of a more pedigreed kitchen.

Main courses are of the meat-and-two-sides variety and have proved slightly less remarkable, although the black beans and rice is excellent. I’d be just as happy with the sandwich called diputado—layers of thin-sliced beef on a kaiser roll topped with a fried egg, tomatoes, and sautéed onions.

After my first visit, I was ready to declare La Caraqueña’s rendition of tres leches cake, called cuatro leches—the chef uses four milks instead of three: sweetened condensed, evaporated, and whole along with heavy cream—the best in the area. Given the drenching of condensed milk, the square of cake held up astonishingly well, retaining its airiness and never devolving into a custard. Unlike many versions, it wasn’t too sweet, and it was a nice change not to see the plate zigzagged with raspberry sauce. But the next time I ordered it, the cake was slightly milk-logged—and merely good. Claros, seeing that I’d left my cake unfinished, replaced it with a fine and creamy rice pudding—and didn’t charge for the cuatro leches.

It was an unexpected gesture and also a welcome reminder: Charm isn’t in the decor but in the details.

La Caraqueña ★★

300 W. Broad St., Falls Church; 703-533-0076. Open daily except Tuesday for lunch and dinner.

This review appeared in the May, 2009 issue of the Washingtonian.

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