Authentic Venezuelan cuisine resurfaces in Riverdale
BY MATT LEVISS
When Mickey Torrealba came to the U.S. from Venezuela, in 2008, he missed the flavors of his home country. Not being able to find any Venezuelan restaurants when he moved to Hyattsville, Torrealba opened his own.
“Venezuelan food — it’s my country, my culture. I know, perfectly, how to cook it!” Torrealba said.
Since 2009, he has been serving traditional Venezuelan dishes to the Hyattsville community. Cafe Azul – Caracas de Ayer specializes in arepas: savory cornmeal-based cakes that are crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and filled with meats, cheeses and other toppings.
“The base in Venezuelan cuisine is corn,” explained Torrealba. “Arepas are the most popular food in Venezuela, made of a white corn mix.” He added that he sells the country’s second most popular dish as well — a sweet crepe called cachapa, made of sweet yellow corn.
Formerly located in the Arts District, Cafe Azul closed in 2020 to move to The Station at Riverdale Park. Torrealba said that his business had outgrown its space.
In April 2023, after a three-year delay caused by the pandemic, the restaurant’s new doors finally opened, at 6740 45th Street, next to MOD Pizza. Torrealba hopes the bigger indoor space, the outdoor seating area and better parking will make Cafe Azul more accessible for customers.
He also hopes the new location will draw customers from a wider geographic area. Torrealba noted that business has been slow, as is expected during the summer months. When August comes, he said, everything changes.
Torrealba said he is proud of making his culture’s unique cuisine. “I believe in arepas,” he said. “It’s different than a hamburger, different than a taco, different than a sandwich. It’s different.”
Torrealba was born and raised in Venezuela. He lived in the capital city of Caracas until 1998, leaving prior to the election of Hugo Chávez. He had been working in restaurants in Venezuela until that point. At the advice of his boss at the time, the then 25-year-old Torrealba immigrated to Puerto Rico. In 2008, he resettled in Hyattsville to be with his wife, Monica, whom he met while she was on vacation in Puerto Rico.
Venezuelan food was not available, let alone known, in the Hyattsville area back when Torrealba arrived, so he decided he would be the one to introduce it.
“I remember my first year, back in the day, I didn’t see anything. These were very difficult moments,” he said. “Eventually, people learn what arepas are: They try it for the first time, and they come back.”
Today, Cafe Azul is no longer the only Venezuelan restaurant in the area, but Torrealba continues to celebrate his restaurant’s legacy, along with the impact of Venezuelan food in the area and across the country.
Open daily from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Cafe Azul, with its authentic recipes and modern atmosphere, is worth a visit.
Matt Leviss is an intern with the Hyattsville Life & Times.