International Bites

I n 2001, a young man named Franco Gonzales arrived in New Haven. He worked in restaurants, studied culinary arts at Gateway Community College and, when he’d saved up enough money, brought his younger brother Ernesto here, too. Ernesto followed in Franco’s footsteps, learning the restaurant trade in various local kitchens. And in 2012, aged 30 and 25, the brothers opened their own.

Rubamba, it’s called. The menu is pan-Hispanic, serving empanadas (originating in Portugal and Spain), tacos (Mexico), quesadillas (also Mexico) and even Peruvian salads. But the specialty is Colombian-style arepas: soft, golden, semi-sweet cornmeal patties packed with whole maize and laced with mozzarella. They come on stout cylinders of Spanish rice and pigeon peas next to slices of fried plantain, and are topped so lavishly that several could serve as designs for flamenco headdresses.

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The Camarón Arepa ($17.95) arrived decorated with a five-shrimp spiral, topped with a tuft of guacamole and a zigzag of sour cream, surrounded by a calligraphic circle of red and green hot sauces. The most extravagant variation on Rubamba’s signature, the Flounder Arepa ($18.95), follows a similar formula, but instead of shrimp it’s topped with a flounder filet.

Yet the most delicious of Rubamba’s arepas may also be the least expensive. The Barbacoa Arepa ($14.50), chef Ernesto’s favorite item on the menu, was decorative meat done right. In the sunlight the braised lamb glowed maroon with BBQ sauce, and in the mouth it fell apart on the tongue, no teeth required. On the dish it was crowned with a single, long ribbon of potato peel and a plume of rosemary.

While tasty and well-plated, the menu reaches deeper into the wallet than its casual vibe would suggest. But thrifty types can still afford an arepa fix at Rubamba’s fast-food offshoots: two Ay! Arepa food carts, one located on the intersection of York and Elm (11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on weekdays) and another positioned on Cedar Street, among Yale Medical School’s daily lunch truck parade (11:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., also weekdays). While the carts don’t have the finesse, the dinner hours or the menu variety of the brick-and-mortar location, they offer some very similar dishes served instead in disposable containers, and at much lower cost. The $13.50 Portobello Arepa becomes $5. The $17.95 Shrimp Arepa goes for $6. And the $18.95 Fish Arepa? $7.

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But there are several other items that can only be had at the sit-down location and are well worth trying. The Mexican Corn ($4.50) arrived as a single cob sliced in two, then lathered in butter, rolled in crumbled cheese and dusted with chili powder. And for those of us that like a good Bloody Mary, the Mexican Ceviche ($11.95) is the appetizer for us. Ceviche, popular in coastal regions of Latin America, involves fresh raw fish cured in lemon and lime juice, spiced with chili pepper and served cold with veggies and broth. Rubamba’s was a spruced-up version, served in two small, martini-like glasses. A shot of vodka was all that was missing.

This past April, Franco went back to the brothers’ hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico, and opened the world’s second Rubamba. An America-friendly Latin American restaurant in Mexico may seem odd, but according to Ernesto, it’s been greeted with enthusiasm and a healthy sort of curiosity. With an American-inspired decor and a novel take on recipes that would otherwise be familiar to customers, “it’s something new,” says the chef.

Ernesto and his brother have a big dream for their tiny restaurant chain: “a Rubamba in every state,” Ernesto says. Yet the next expansion may not be another Rubamba but a brick-and-mortar take on Ay! Arepa, somewhere in Manhattan. Many of his best customers, he says, have been local college students who moved to the big city after graduation. “‘We need you down in New York,’ they told me. I thought, ‘why not?’” Ernesto envisions Ay! Arepa growing into a Chipotle-style fast food empire whose forte isn’t the burrito but the arepa.

Whether there’s a pot of gold at the end of Rubamba’s rainbow, there’s already plenty to go around on this end, thanks to glistening fried plantains, flavor-gilded cobbed corn and those signature, slightly sweet, golden corn patties.

25 High St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 11am-9:30pm, Fri-Sat 11am-10pm, Sun noon-8pm
(203) 773-0032

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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