A Destination for Latin FlavorsJan 02, 2020 10:27AM ● By Niz Proskocil
Carlos Mendez co-owns Au Courant a popular European-influenced restaurant in the Benson neighborhood. Before that, he ran two eateries that specialized in Spanish cuisine. But for his latest venture, the Omaha restaurateur went back to his roots and opened a Latin American spot that serves many of the dishes he grew up eating in Venezuela.
Mendez and business partner Rognny Diaz, also from Venezuela, opened The Hunger Block in May 2018 in Rockbrook Village. It’s housed in the space formerly occupied by Little España, which Mendez operated from 2014 to 2018. The Hunger Block offers an interesting, diverse, and, for the most part, tasty lineup of Venezuelan favorites, as well as food from other South American countries, including Colombia, Argentina, and Peru.
The menu includes appetizers, salads, and main courses, plus classic Venezuelan street fare commonly found in bustling food-filled areas called “la calle del hambre,” which translates to “the hunger street.”
Arepas—grilled or fried flatbread made from corn flour—are enjoyed day and night in Venezuela, Colombia, and other Central and South American countries. They can be eaten plain, but they’re often split in half and filled with meat, cheese, vegetables, and other ingredients. The Hunger Block serves arepas stuffed with shredded beef, chicken, beans, cheese, and more. A vegan version boasts avocado, black beans, sweet plantains, and slaw.
My dining partner and I tried mini arepas, or arepitas, listed under the appetizer section. The simple yet palate-pleasing dish features five small discs of deep-fried arepas, crispy and golden on the outside and soft inside. The arepitas are accompanied by a wedge of queso fresco, sliced avocado, and Salvadoran crema (similar to sour cream). Other shareable appetizers include nachos, tequeños (fried cheese sticks), and Peruvian-inspired ceviche (citrus-marinated raw fish).
The street food section of the menu includes tacos, patacon (a sandwich that uses fried green plantains instead of bread), burgers, and empanadas. Many cultures have their own variations on the empanada, a hand pie plump with sweet or savory fillings.
The restaurant’s chicken empanada features a shredded chicken filling tucked inside a flaky pastry pocket in the traditional half-moon shape. The pastry was crisp and golden, but the chicken needed more seasoning and was a bit dry. Two aromatic house-made condiments—a white garlicky sauce and a zesty avocado-and-cilantro sauce—enhanced the flavor of every bite.
Pabellon criollo is a traditional Venezuelan dish of shredded beef, black beans, rice, and fried sweet plantains. The entree is among the restaurant’s most popular. Although nicely seasoned, the beef was on the tough side, and the texture of the plain rice was more firm than fluffy. Slightly sweet, caramelized, and tender plantains—similar to a banana but bigger and starchier—were my favorite part of the dish.
Forget counting calories here. Portions are big, and most dishes are starchy and filling. But there are options for health-conscious diners and those who prefer vegetarian, vegan, or low-carb meals. Gluten-free offerings are available, too. Arepas, for instance, are made from corn and thus naturally gluten-free.
Those who order the bandeja paisa should come hungry: it is a hefty platter of red beans, rice, ground beef, smoky sausage, sweet plantains, fried pork belly, avocado, an arepa, and a fried egg. A popular meal in Colombia, it’s a belly-busting dish that may put a person in a food coma.
Many menu items pair well with a glass of fruity, refreshing sangria, made with red or white wine. Other cocktails include Peruvian pisco sour, margaritas, and mojitos. The dining room is bright and cheerful, with low- and high-top tables, wood finishes, brick accents, and fun touches such as colorful wall murals. Service the night we visited was friendly and attentive, and food arrived fast. Appetizers run from $3 to $14, arepas are $8, and entrees are in the $15 range.
We didn’t have room for dessert, but diners who do can tackle massive chocolate and vanilla milkshakes big enough for three or four people. The restaurant has gained a following for the towering, totally Instagram-worthy treats, which are topped with everything from doughnuts and ice cream sandwiches to cookies and cake, plus a mountain of whipped cream, Nutella, and sprinkles.
The Hunger Block’s casual, laid-back atmosphere is enjoyable and, for the most part, the food is too. Although some dishes could be tweaked, the restaurant excels in showcasing the rich flavors of Latin cuisine and adds to the diversity of Omaha’s dining scene.
Food: 3.5 Service: 4 Ambiance: 3.5 Price: $$ Overall: 3.5
Visit thehungerblock.com for more information.This article was printed in the January/February 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.