Valencia Luncheria, Norwalk
August 2013 & December 2022
I’m writing this in 2023, having recently enjoyed a “Venezuelan Beach Food” lunch at Valencia Luncheria in Norwalk. This may come as a surprise to some folks in a picture below, who have been waiting to read this particular page for a decade.
Good looking folks, too.
Back in the day, I had this brilliant idea. I would put a call out to the vast CTMQ readership and massive friend network: Let’s meet and have dinner at a unique ethnic Connecticut restaurant that serves cuisine specific to one country or culture of the world! It’ll be a blast!
It sounded so fun on paper. So I went forth and planned to do exactly that. A bunch of people gathered at O’Camelo in Hartford for a fantastic Portuguese meal. Local NPR stars, Twitter friends, coworkers, real life friends… it was really cool. So I did it again here, at Valencia Luncheria down in Norwalk – and wore the same gosh darn shirt, which is hilarious to me now in 2023.
It was another success!
And I hated it. No, not the food… and certainly not the people. I hated the whole… production. I didn’t know most of the people who accepted the invites. I was meeting them on unfamiliar ground. I struggled with massive anxiety and could not just enjoy what was a rather lovely idea. So I tried once more at some long-closed German place for Oktoberfest and that was that. It just wrecked my mental wellbeing.
Why am I spilling all of this now, 10 years on? For one thing, it’s cathartic. For another, seeing the picture here of the happy crew from 2013 brought back those feelings I had back then. The good feelings, not the uncontrollable bad ones.
And hey, I’m still in touch with some of those people in the picture above. My beautiful wife, of course… I can’t get away from her. But there’s Amy Kundrat and her husband Ryan front left! Amy went on to write Fairfield County Chef’s Table which had a bit on Valencia Luncheria!
There’s a coworker, and… several I have no memory of. But hey, if you’re one of those people, thanks for coming out in 2013. You’re awesome.
As my memories were complete mush from that first visit, I returned all alone in December of 2022. I was at peace in my solitude. And I was hungry.
Hungry for “Venezuelan beach food.” Whatever that is. What is that?
It’s arepas. Lots and lots of arepas. And empanadas, but we’re here for the arepas. If you are not familiar with an arepa, it is a delectable handmade Venezuelan corn cake that can be fried or skillet-roasted, then stuffed with tantalizing combinations like spinach and bacon, Venezuelan pork roast, queso blanco and avocado, or the sweet option… dulche de leche and banana.
The are relatively simple and highlight the freshness of the ingredients.
There’s much more on Valencia’s large menu, but it’s pretty much all about the arepas… and the margaritas.
Alas, I was lunching before noon and had a full afternoon of CTMQ adventures ahead of me, so I opted for a Guanabana Batido – even though I had no idea what either of those words meant. I was all in. I was on a playa in Caracas.
Valencia is painted in the bright, garish colors that we Americans associate with happy Caribbean and South American beach villas. Its seating is tightly packed and the bar area is pretty small. This is the type of place you come to with friends and leave with a few more. If you’re that type of person that does things like that.
The handsome bartender whipped up my mystery drink and put it in front of me, just kind of staring. I knew that he knew that I had no idea what I had ordered. I tried to play cool, but look at me. I’m an old pasty white guy from suburban West Hartford. I could not pronounce Guanabana or batido. I fiddled with my phone, feigning distraction, until he was called away.
Guanabana is also known as soursop and it is a tropical fruit. This is an incredibly accurate description:
With an aroma similar to pineapple, the flavor of the fruit has been described as a combination of strawberries and apple with sour citrus flavor notes, contrasting with an underlying thick creamy texture reminiscent of banana.
That’s exactly what it tastes like and I was sucking it down in milkshake form. It was delicious.
When it came to my food order, I continued the trend of ordering things I was wholly clueless about. Oh look, one of the specials of the day has “Venezuelan” in the name, so that’s important. one Venezuelan hallaca please. And a pernil arepa. I knew what that was and since it is often cited as the best arepa of the bunch, that’s what I ordered. (This is also what Guy Fieri ate here on one of his shows that propelled Valencia into the national spotlight.)
My food came quickly and I inspected the hallaca. What the hellaca is a hallaca?
According to The Hallaca Factory, the tradition of prepping the labor-intensive dish on Christmas is one cherished by many Venezuelans. The tradition is thought to have originated with the enslaved indigenous populations during the colonial era. At the time, Spanish people who enslaved others would often feed their leftover Christmas meal scraps to them. Upon receiving the food, they would wrap the scraps with cornmeal in banana leaves, and then boil and eat the dish.
Today, many Venezuelan families continue to make hallacas on the holiday. According to The World, families collect fresh ingredients Christmas morning, and the preparation begins. The array of savory ingredients, including the meat, fruits, and vegetables, are folded into cornmeal dough. Then, just as those before, it’s all wrapped up in a moist banana leaf that has been soaked and boiled.
That doesn’t sound great. I cut into mine and could tell it was thick cornmeal dough wrapped around some pork and peppers and other stuff. Both this and the arepa were a bit greasier than I’d like, but then I remembered I’d just finished surfing off the South American coast and quickly didn’t care.
Then I tried the green sauce and really didn’t care. Holy Hallaca, I would drink that green sauce, whatever the heck it is.
This whole place is helmed by Chef Michael Young who is a veteran of Latin cuisine, from Norwalk to New York City to Aspen. You can read about his experiences here if you’re curious. I’m in beach mode, so I don’t care to bother with that here.
As mentioned, the menu is extensive. There are over 20 arepa varieties at any given time ranging from mango/avocado to grilled chicken/bacon/honey mustard, sweet plantains/queso blanco, and fennel arepa/chicken/avocado/queso, etc. Many empanadas, burritos, bowls, and sandwiches. I’ve read their ceviche is fantastic, and I believe it.
This little hole-in-the-wall on a very busy road in Norwalk is as popular as its been since opening in 2003 – it has grown and changed locations since their original space and it’s been featured on various shows a few times and has won all sorts of fake crowd-sourced awards.
And now it stands as one of the few places in all of Connecticut visited twice by CTMQ for CTMQ purposes. The highest praise of all.