Ethnic restaurants bring diversity to city

Arepa Mia

Lis Hernandez, the manager of Arepa Mia, holds an arepa in front of the Colombian flag. She plastered the vibrant red walls of the restaurant with Venezuelan folk art, like small ceramic kitchens and pictures she took of Margarita Isalnd in Venezuela, to create a cozy, traditional setting.

On the wall above the ordering counter of Arepa Mia, lights illuminate information about both what an arepa is and how to eat it. Heart-shaped stands adorning tables bear the same instructions. Still, every day owner Lis Hernandez finds herself explaining what an arepa is to customers.

Arepas contain meats, cheeses and often avocado sandwiched between grilled and sliced corn flour dough, and are the main feature of this cozy Venezuelan restaurant located just blocks away from Decatur.

Owner Lis Hernandez opened Arepa Mia with the intention of having customers  “come in, enjoy and take food to go,” but people ended up enjoying the restaurant so much, they wanted a sit-down dining experience. The restaurant took 15 years to develop.

She cooked in two Italian restaurants in Atlanta before developing the idea to start a Venezuelan restaurant, which she debuted in 2012 at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market.

“I always feel the need for my back home cuisine, Venezuela, because there is nothing like this,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez finds that some know little about what Venezuelan cuisine is, and she feels a need to educate people about it.

“There’s still a lot of people that don’t know about what is Venezuelan. They always get confused with Mexican cuisine, with Cuban cuisine or Colombian,” Hernandez said.

“In Venezuela, we are very mischievous in naming our arepas,” Hernandez said. One “classic” arepa with a clever name is the “reina pepiada,” shown at right. The first arepera owners in Caracas named the dish after the first Venezuelan Miss Universe, Susana Duijm. In Spanish, “reina” means “queen,” and “pepiada” means something “curvy” or “really hot.” While most Venezuelan restaurants feature this classic, Hernandez says “everybody swears for my reina pepiada. They say it’s amazing.”

At Arepa Mia, “it’s more the food from every home in Venezuela cross country – like pasta and pizzas in Italy – arepas, empanadas and cachapas are coming from all over the country,” Hernandez said.

She corrects the misconception that arepas are street food.

Arepas are contained by grilled, flattened dough made of corn flour, salt, and water. The dough is cut in half then stuffed with meat and cheese, different from the arepas of Colombia which are served open faced in the streets with varying contents.

However, there aren’t arepas in the street in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. Venezuelan restaurants serve arepas with the “full dining experience.”

People eat at the traditional areperas with tiled counters at one, two and three in the morning after a night out.  As a nod at this custom, the white tile covers the counters of Arepa Mia.

The tiny restaurant has begun to grow because of the hard work of Hernandez.

“A lot of people don’t really know what it takes behind the scenes to actually have a business and open it.” Hernandez said.

Regardless of it’s small surroundings, Hernandez says she is making it work.

“What you see is what you get, and I make the best out of it,” she said.


Masala Indian Cuisine

A plate of cumin, coriander, turmeric, chili powder, ginger and masala lies on the table as Bachu Zahed, manager of Masala Indian Cuisine at Patel Plaza, discusses the culture, business and cuisine of his restaurant.

Masala Indian Cuisine first opened in 2002 and has a “very good name” in the Indian community surrounding Patel Plaza.

Patel Plaza is the food center of the Indian community nearing the end of Church Street.

“We have the national festival, Diwali, which is the festival of light, a lot of people come from different states,” Zahed said.

Diwali is the peak season at Masala, where “we get people from Alabama, Tennessee, even Mississippi,” Zahed said.

India is a vast country with varying cuisines.

Masala specializes in Northern cuisine, which features meats like kebab, and unlike southern Indian food, lacks food wraps. Chefs use ingredients like spinach, garlic, chicken, black pepper and oil.

Masala attracts a mix of customers, just as it’s name means blend of spices.

“We have a variety of customers,” Zahed said. While Indians make up sixty percent of the restaurant’s clientele, “African, Korean, Chinese, everyone comes here.”

Masala employees come from India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and most commonly use Hindi to communicate.

With customers, “we start in English, but

A characteristic unique to Indian restaurants is Bollywood movies on repeat.

According to Zahed, “every Indian restaurant” has the energetic, rhythmic films playing at all times while customers eat.

The diversity of Bollywood movies reflects the variety of ethnicities in customers of Masala.

“Nowadays, when they’re doing their dances they have different types of girls, white Americans, black, they [have] everything,” said Zahed.

As the dal fry, chili paneer and naan are prepared in the kitchen, Zahed brings out


if they’re Indian they speak Hindi to us,” he said.

a plate of aromatic spices. He describes each one and their use.

“India is a big country. It has a lot of different languages and so many other spices.”


Mediterranean Grill

With the warm hiss of sizzling lamb in the kitchen and several languages floating in the air, Mediterranean Grill manager Faris Mousa is “bringing people together through food.”

Mediterranean Grill displays its most classic dish: three types of grilled lamb served with a side of rice and Greek salad.

A Chicago native of Palestinian descent, Mousa moved to Atlanta at age 12. He began working at the restaurant seven years ago as a sophomore at Druid Hills. Mousa rose to general manager because “they wanted young energy to rebrand the place.”

Mediterranean Grill was established in 2000 when former manager Sam Yazbak visited the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. With Rainbow Foods next door and an affluent community nearby, Yazbak thought a “Mediterranean spot would definitely do it’s job.”

Although Yazbak is Palestinian, the menu at Mediterranean Grill “displays the different countries and regions of the Mediterranean.” Chefs use key ingredients including paprika, cinnamon, cumin, basil leaves, salt and red wine vinaigrette in cooking dishes. Another ingredient “separates it from other cuisines,” – the heavy use of olive oil, Mousa said.

Some of the most popular items on the menu are the Greek spanakopita, Spanish gazpacho soup and other Middle Eastern options including kufta, falafel and hummus.  Of the Mediterranean feast available to the customer, pita bread is a staple, and it lies on most the tables of the lunchtime crowd.

Faris Mousa, manager of Mediterranean Grill, stands beneath a banner bearing the word “peace” in many languages. The banner reflects how the restaurant joins people through food.

The diversity of Mediterranean Grill extends to the kitchen where employees speak Arabic, English and Spanish.

In the kitchen, “You’ll see a Moroccan come to America and start speaking Spanish with a Latin, and you’ll have a Latino speaking Arabic to a Moroccan,” Mousa said.

Countries represented in the kitchen include Algeria, Honduras, Mexico, Sudan  and Palestine.

As far as the customers go, approximately five percent are of Middle Eastern descent, with the remainder mostly Caucasian, African American and Latino. The area’s high education and income level impacts the type of customers.

“People who are educated usually explore more cuisines,” Mousa said.

He describes the food as commercial, yet authentic. At Mediterranean Grill, everyone is welcomed with food made from recipes Yazbak created himself.

“The beauty of food in general is it brings people together no matter where you come from, no matter what sexuality you are, no matter what gender,” Mousa said. “You have to eat.”