Along Sepulveda Boulevard in front of the Van Nuys Petco, one of Los Angeles’s invaluable mini food truck rows gathers on most evenings. It’s where birria de res specialist Birrieria Villalobos, a teppanyaki truck, a Yucatecan taco spot, and a cute red trailer with blue and yellow signage boasting the three colors of the Colombian flag line up serving fresh street food to Valley denizens. The main attraction at the Colombian truck, Vivi’s Gourmet Cuisine, is the arepa rellena, a stuffed arepa. Arepas are an indigenous dish made from cornmeal (usually precooked corn flour), comparable to gorditas mexicanas and pupusas. They are essential to Venezuelan and Colombian cuisines, though regional versions can be found in Puerto Rico, Panamá, and the Canary Islands.
Originally from Cali, Colombia, Viviana “Vivi” Henriquez opened Vivi’s Gourmet Cuisine five years ago at the Northridge Farmers Market. In the months leading up to the pandemic, she moved into a trailer, initially gathering a loyal following of Venezuelans and Colombians.
“I had worked as a cook at the Lakeside Cafe in Encino, then the Cheesecake Factory where I worked long hours and came home exhausted. I thought to myself, if I’m going to work this hard I might as well be doing it for myself,” says Henriquez. She enrolled in the culinary arts program at Los Angeles Mission College in Sylmar, and after two years in school, a friend had an idea. “A Colombian classmate suggested I start small, doing events for the community, catering, which led me to the Northridge Farmers Market,” she says. At first, Henriquez had to give away arepas because they are so rare in LA. Arepas are foreign even for Latinos who know and love gorditas and pupusas.
Having earned the trust of hesitant diners, Henriquez and her husband found a trailer to make their operation more mobile, dedicating it to the arepa rellena filled with traditional recipes from Cali. The arepa de pollo gets filled with shredded chicken seasoned with triquisar, a popular Colombian seasoning mix, and comes tinted yellow from a little food coloring (which is common in Colombia). It’s finished with melted cheese and cilantro sauce. The chicharrón arepa contains fried diced squares of crackling and cheese, while the beef, called carne desmechada in Colombia, is stewed in spices, a little tomato, onion, and garlic before being overstuffed into split arepas. “I cook the corn myself, and grind the corn into the dough,” says Henriquez. To drink, try pairing the arepas with ultra sweet gaseosas, Colombian sodas, such as Postobon Manzana and Colombiana.
The trailer operates in Van Nuys, Reseda, Canoga Park, and down in Long Beach on different days with a concise menu of arepa rellenas, Colombian hot dogs, hamburgers, empanadas, chorizo, and finally dedo de queso (cheese sticks), an item Venezuelans take very seriously; in Venezuela, they are called tequeños. “In Long Beach we get a lot of Venezuelans for the arepas, but even more so for the cheese sticks,” says David Muñoz, Vivi’s husband and partner, who pairs the cheese sticks with a sweet pineapple sauce. There are five sauces on the truck: pineapple, cilantro, salsa rosada (mayo and ketchup), and mustard, all of which are key to Colombian hot dogs and hamburgers.
Instead of a Colombian pan perro, which isn’t available here, Vivi uses a locally made bun for her hot dogs, and heaps in onions, lettuce, tomato, crispy chopped bacon, and ripio de papa (stick fries) covered in the five sauces. The hamburger comes similarly dressed. There are few places dedicated to the arepa, and even fewer going to the lengths Henriquez goes for her satisfying arepas rellenas, hot dogs, and Colombian snacks, making it well worth it to find this food trailer at work.