The last time I found myself at Mil Jugos, it was because of jury duty. The only table available was against the cash register, and I was asked to dine with a stranger. That stranger became a friend, and my meal was a memorable one.
Present day finds me meeting chef Norah Briceño over a late lunch. Her space has tripled in size, but the charm is still there. In a neighborhood infused with modern dining, her family-run establishment was around before most of them. With so many diverse cuisines to choose from, our county is lucky to experience classic Venezuelan.
Could you explain what an arepa is and how it differs from a cachapa?
An arepa is a traditional Venezuelan bread made with white corn flour. They can be prepared by either grilling, frying or being put into a special arepa griller. [Editor's Note: Since they are prepared to order, diners are encouraged to request any method.] It can then be filled with anything of your choice: meat, cheese or even just veggies.
Cachapas are another traditional Venezuelan meal. They are made with fresh sweet corn and prepared like a pancake. These are typically filled with cream and cheese, but they are also delicious when you add any meat of your choice.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
I haven't eaten too many weird things in my life, but back home in Venezuela, I ate a chiwire, which is a little animal that tastes a lot like egg–but not as good.
One food you can't live without:
Steak–because I love beef.
Most undervalued ingredient:
What were the challenges to opening a storefront, and how did you overcome them?
Introducing Venezuelan arepas, empanadas and cachapas to a public used to other types of Latin American food other than Venezuelan.
Where was your most recent meal?
Splashes Restaurant in Laguna Beach. I had the 18-hour, slow-cooked short ribs with a red wine sauce. It was accompanied by garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables. It was to die for!
Favorite places to eat (besides your own):
I love eating out and trying new places, so I have many favorites. One that comes to mind is Open Sesame, which is Middle Eastern cuisine. I also like Thai food, such as Thai Bite, and Dizz's As Is in Laguna Beach.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best:
Orange County, especially Santa Ana, has the best melting pot of PEOPLE who are open to exploring new types of food.
Best tip for the home cook:
To not ever use any lard in their cooking; substitute corn oil instead.
We hear your black beans are fantastic. What's the secret?
It's a family secret that has been passed along through generations. It consists of two key ingredients: onions and garlic. Of course, no lard nor artificial flavoring, either.
You're making breakfast; what are you having?
For breakfast, I like to have an arepa with scrambled eggs, served with cheese, black beans and ham. I also can't live without my morning coffee.
Your earliest food memory:
Going to my grandparents' house and helping them clean, meal and process the yellow corn. And then make the best cachapas with queso de mano.
Favorite meal growing up:
Carne en bara con guasacaca and yuca frita.
What is your jugo of choice?
Mora, or blackberry.
Is there a dish you'd like to learn how to make?
Tom yum soup, which is Thai.
Your best recent food find:
Protein bowl with beef, eggs, steamed rice and seaweed at a local spot in Newport Beach. [Editor's Note: She did not divulge the name of that spot. Trying to keep it a secret?]
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
The weirdest thing a customer has requested (so far) was could I make a sweet empanada with apple? It actually sounded good to me, so I gave it a try and made it with a little bit of cinnamon, then served it with caramel and powdered sugar on top. The customer said he loved it and that I should add it to the menu.
Did you always plan to expand the space?
Yes, I always had hopes of either opening another location or expanding our original space. Luckily, three years ago, I received the opportunity to expand to the location that was next door, which is three times bigger than my old one. I'm so glad we were able to move, as it has allowed me to distribute my culture to more people.