There are condiments that work best when they’re added to other foods, and then there are condiments so good that they’re a star attraction in their own right. Such is the case with Caracas Arepa Bar’s spicy, sweet, and tangy house sauce — or, as Caracas co-owner Maribel Araujo calls it, “salsa Caracas.”
I first encountered the gleaming, yellowish-green sauce in 2008. I was 19 years old, and had just moved to New York from my parents’ home in Gurgaon, India, to attend college. On one of my first solo outings to Manhattan, I made my way straight to Caracas. Although I didn’t know much about the city or its food scene, an aunt had told me that I had to check out the restaurant, which served what she described as the perfect street food.
And so I found myself standing outside of Caracas’s tiny storefront on East 7th Street. When I parted the curtains that hung just past its front door, they revealed a dark, narrow room with square tables lined up along a long wooden banquette.
I sat down and watched servers walk by with plates of what looked like tiny white sandwiches bursting with different fillings — I would later learn they were arepas, which I had imagined would be more like savory pancakes. It was my first time eating in a New York City restaurant, and my first encounter with Venezuelan food. I was curious and excited, and when I noticed a plastic squeeze bottle on the table, I squeezed a few dabs of sauce onto my finger. Trying sauces at restaurants long before the food arrives is a habit I’ve never been able to rid myself of, and this one reminded me why. It was spicy, but not in a fiery way, just enough to tickle my throat. It also had citrusy, herby flavor and a creamy sweetness, almost as if it was made with coconut milk.
I found myself going in for one dab after the next. Eventually I began to feel a little guilty that I might not have any left to eat with an arepa, and wondered if anyone had watched me greedily drain the bottle.
In a recent phone conversation, Araujo told me I wasn’t the only one consuming copious amounts of her salsa before the food had even arrived at the table. She said that servers frequently encounter customers asking for multiple squeeze bottle refills. On one occasion, she recalled, a server had to chase after a diner who was trying to make off with one of the bottles.
The sauce’s popularity is even more surprising to Araujo because it came about entirely by accident. Soon after Araujo opened the restaurant in 2003, Valerie Iribarren, the head chef at the time, was trying to find aji dulce peppers to use in various dishes but was having a hard time procuring them. Someone suggested a different chile pepper, but it wasn’t quite right. Iribarren didn’t want it to go to waste, so she decided to use the pepper to create a version of the traditional green guasacaca sauce that’s typically served alongside arepas in Venezuelan restaurants. Its ingredients include avocado, fresh herbs like cilantro or parsley, and chile peppers — though Araujo keeps her own recipe and its ingredients a closely guarded secret. Although the experimental sauce didn’t go down particularly well with Venezuelan customers, some of whom told Araujo it was a tad too sweet, it was an instant hit among most other diners like myself.
After Caracas opened, Araujo and co-owner Aristides Barrios began handing out the sauce in little to-go containers for diners to take home; by the end of their first year in business, they were selling bottles of it.
In the years following my first memorable outing, I returned to Caracas over and over again. I introduced friends to the restaurant, brought my parents along when they visited for my college graduation, and took my boyfriend, who later became my husband. Each visit created new salsa Caracas acolytes.
But it wasn’t until several years after my first visit that I took home a bottle of my own, from the more expansive Williamsburg outpost that Caracas opened in 2008 (the restaurant also had a location on the Rockaway Beach boardwalk until last fall). I found myself drizzling copious amounts of the sauce on fried eggs at breakfast, sandwiches at lunch, and often onto just plain white rice at dinner. And yes, I ate it many, many times all by itself, squirting generous amounts straight from the bottle into my mouth.
Late last year, I was devastated to learn that Caracas was closing its East Village home after almost two decades. A major part of my New York City history was no more. But I took solace in the sauce, each dab a memory of my days as a young adult in the city. I can’t wait till I can make my way back to Caracas’s Williamsburg location again, and for the days when it might feel safe once more to squeeze sauce from a communal bottle and drizzle it atop Caracas’s pulled chicken and avocado arepa. And of course, I can’t wait to take a bottle — or two — home.
Caracas Arepa Bar’s house sauce ($11) is available for purchase at the restaurant or for local delivery through the restaurant’s website. Araujo says they’re also looking into making the sauce available for national and international shipping.
Update: This article has been updated with a clarification on the origin of the salsa