News / Edmonton

'We keep Venezuela in our heart': In times of political turmoil, Avila Arepa offers a taste of home

Rolando Sandrea, founder of Ávila Arepa, had a life-long dream of opening a restaurant and after two recession-related layoffs he decided to pursue his passion.

Rolando and Samantha Sandrea are the owners of Ávila Arepa, the first Venezualan restaruant in Edmonton.

Kevin Tuong / For Metro

Rolando and Samantha Sandrea are the owners of Ávila Arepa, the first Venezualan restaruant in Edmonton.

Stepping into Ávila Arepa on Whyte Avenue is like taking a stroll along the coast of Caracas, Venezuela, back in better times.

The hanging clock is set to Venezuelan time, and the walls are hung with pictures of the embattled country’s most famous mountain, Cerro El Ávila.

Most poignantly, the entrance is painted in the same colours as the floor at Simón Bolívar Airport, which thousands of Venezuelans have crossed in recent months to escape the economic and political turmoil taking over the country.

“When people from Venezuela come here, some of them cry,” said Rolando Sandrea, the founder of Ávila Arepa. “Once you enter here, you feel at home.”

It’s a home that many Venezuelans no longer recognize.

Over the last year, the country has been rocked by massive protests in response to President Nicolás Maduro tightening his grip on the country, sending opposition leaders to prison and rewriting the constitution. Citizens have faced rampant inflation, skyrocketing food prices and a lack of basic supplies like toilet paper. More than 100 people have died in the protests.

Rolando Sandrea is the owner and head chef of Ávila Arepa, the first Venezuelan restaurant in Edmonton. Behind him is a depiction of the art on the floor of Simón Bolívar International Airport in Venezuela, as a way to remind people of home.

Kevin Tuong / For Metro

Rolando Sandrea is the owner and head chef of Ávila Arepa, the first Venezuelan restaurant in Edmonton. Behind him is a depiction of the art on the floor of Simón Bolívar International Airport in Venezuela, as a way to remind people of home.

Sandrea (known to his staff as El Jefe, or "the boss") recognizes he’s lucky to be in Canada. As upbeat Latin music welcomes guests to his lively restaurant, he tells how he moved from Venezuela eight years ago with just six boxes of items to take a job as a chemical engineer in the oil and gas industry.

“I feel we made the right decision to move because of our family … I do miss it a lot,” Sandrea said. “I’m concerned every time I read the news and hear the situation is getting worse.”

His daughter, now 12, was four when they left Venezuela. His son is four, and although he is a born and raised Canadian, Sandrea makes sure they still have a connection to their home country.

At the very least, through arepas.

“He knows the flag, he knows the food. And he loves arepas,” Sandrea says while stretching a form of white cheese, known as queso de nano (cheese by hand) with the finesse of a fine pastry chef.

“We keep Venezuela in our heart.”

Passengers walk near departures gates at the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Maiquetia, near Caracas, Venezuela. Rolando Sandrea decided to copy the design for the entrance to his Edmonton restaurant.

Fernando Llano / The Associated Press

Passengers walk near departures gates at the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Maiquetia, near Caracas, Venezuela. Rolando Sandrea decided to copy the design for the entrance to his Edmonton restaurant.

The arepa is a popular Venezuelan food made of corn flour and filled with meat, vegetables, seafood and more. It resembles a taco, but this is no taco.

“Tacos are overrated, arepas are the new thing,” quips Sandrea’s wife Samanta Gonzalez.

She expects the food to grow more popular as more Venezuelans flee the country, taking a piece of home with them abroad.

“The arepa has become like a big boom in recent years. Before, no one knew what it was,” she said.

Sandrea’s life-long dream has been to open a restaurant, and after two recession-related layoffs, he decided to pursue his passion.

“He treats the kitchen like his lab,” Gonzalez said.

In addition to giving Venezuelans in Edmonton a reminder of home, Sandrea also loves introducing people to arepas for the first time.

“People think everybody from Latin America eat tacos and wears sombreros,” he said. “But it’s nothing like that.

“I wake up every day with a smile on my face. I see their faces and they’re having a new experience ... Nothing makes me feel greater than seeing people enjoy my food.”

Watch: Rolando Sandrea shows how he makes queso de nano or 'cheese by hand'

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