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What's Cookin' Behind the Curtain - A "Mil"from the Heart

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Every Friday, LAist is taking you on a trip down to Orange County to uncover the unique dining experiences that await adventurous eaters willing to explore beyond the county line.

Here in LA, we are blessed with embarrassing riches when it comes to Latin American food. Just about every country is represented by at least a couple of places that truly embody the cuisine and spirit of the local culture. Venezuela is no different. While authentic Venezuelan restaurants are sparse in the Southland, they do exist. Coupa Café in Beverly Hills offers the upscale option, with fresh-brewed coffee, high-end food items, and some traditional dishes. But down in Santa Ana, Mil Jugos brings Venezuelan cuisine to the everyman.

Mil Jugos is a tiny shop in downtown Santa Ana, neighboring the Civic Center and Artists Village. Owned and operated by a Venezuelan mother-daughter tandem, the café contains only five tables but packs the soul of a nation within its walls. With brightly colored walls, scores of pictures of friends and family, and little wall ornaments depicting various incarnations of homes, Mil Jugos feels like one is taking a glimpse into the lives of its proprietors.

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While Mil Jugos serves conventional sandwiches and salads, the real attraction are the two Venezuelan specialties on the menu: cachapas and arepas. Cachapas are sweet corn pancakes topped with various items typically served at breakfast or as appetizers. The café presents toppings like queso blanco, pork, seasoned beef, and ham. Because it was later in the day when I made my trip, I opted for the arepas. Arepas are more like a Venezuelan sandwich, with grilled corn bread surrounding hearty fillings. Mil Jugos provides numerous combinations of hot seasoned meats and cheeses to satisfy the palate. Slightly smaller than an In-N-Out hamburger, the arepas aren't going to be tummystuffers individually. Which simply means you can make your own variety pack to sample different fillings. I went light and only got two: the pabellon and the pollo.

The first thing you'll notice after you order at the counter is that it takes them a long time to make the arepas. Those of us used to our fast-food lives might be annoyed, but to me it just meant that I was getting something freshly prepared. Indeed, when my arepas were brought out to me, they were steaming. My first bite gave me the warmth and density of the masa-based bread, and the savoriness of the pollo. Yum! The pollo arepa was a combination of shredded chicken, cooked with garlic, tomatoes, and onions. All of the seasoning livened up the filling, though it was not spicy - I added some of the cool green chili sauce to give it extra bite. The pabellon was a mixture of carne desmechada (shredded beef cooked with similar ingredients as the pollo), black beans, and white cheese. This filling offered more of a flavor contrast between the slightly sour cheese and the meat and beans. Both were tasty, though I think my preference was for the pollo.

As anyone who who has studied elementary Spanish knows, mil jugos means a thousand juices. Accordingly, the restaurant also offers a lengthy list of nearly 25 fresh juices. Familiar fruits that are not necessarily typically consumed as juices include banana, pear, peach, and strawberry. Also available are numerous native selections such as guanabana, chicha, and tamarindo. To accompany my arepas, I had a large cup of tizana, a common Venezuelan drink, which was comprised of passion fruit juice mixed with several scoops of chopped green apples, cantaloupe, grapes, and pineapple.

Mil Jugos primarily serves the workday lunch set, closing on Sundays, and only opening from 10 to 5 during the week (opening at 10:30 on Saturdays). With arepas ranging from $3-$4 and cachapas priced at $5-$6, you'll need to spend a little bit more to get a full meal than at a typical American café. But the meal you're getting will be anything but typical.

Mil Jugos
318 W. 5th St.
Santa Ana, CA 92701

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Photo by Ryan Young for LAist