Photo by Zuzia Whelan

The outside of The House of Salads on South Richmond Street was unassuming until about 3 weeks ago, when Juan Ramon Sanchez-Gil put signs outside to advertise Venezuelan street food, to tempt in more passers-by.

The restaurant is small. Inside, the floor is white tile and there is a muddle of furniture. There is a heavy antique table and a small fold-up one, both covered in checkered oilcloth.

Colourful tin cans hang from the fluorescent ceiling lights. One wall is covered with old coffee sacks from Brazil, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

On the other side, there is a small counter, where at about 12pm on a recent Thursday, Sanchez-Gil was preparing the day’s dishes, singing under his breath to the ’90s Latin pop playing in the background.

On the open grill behind him, six or seven arepas – cornmeal pockets that can be filled with meat or vegetables – are slowly toasting. He mixes more dough with his hands: corn flour, olive oil, and a little salt.

“The biggest seller is the Spanish omelette,” says Sanchez-Gil, which costs €5.50. There are some people who have been coming in three times a week for them since he opened last year, he says.

The second most popular dish is the cachapa (€11). “It’s probably the only place in Dublin where you can sit down with one,” he says.

The cachapa, unlike the arepa, is made of sweetcorn meal, instead of regular cornmeal, and it’s a lot bigger and flatter, like a pancake, served folded in half, and filled with melted cheese.

He taps the outside of one toasting arepa with a finger. “You have to keep turning it so it gets crispy on the outside,” he says.

“In my case, I like them [arepas] very thin. The first thing is getting the right consistency, then you make a bun, then you’re ready to throw it on the grill,” he says.

“This would be the staple food for many Venezuelans, they would eat it for breakfast, lunch or dinner,” he says, picking up a ball of dough, rolling it into a cylinder, then out into a disc.

“Ideally as round as possible. We make every single one by hand,” he says, placing it on the grill.

An Evolving Menu

Originally from Madrid, Sanchez-Gil has lived in Ireland for almost 20 years, with his wife, Carla de Castro, who works as a fitness instructor.

When the House of Salads opened in 2017, the menu had, well, a lot of salads. They also offered paella and the ever-popular Spanish omelette.

But on the side, Sanchez-Gil and his wife, who is Venezuelan, stated to make arepas and cachapas at festivals. The feedback was good. So he decided to include them on the menu.

Sanchez-Gil invested in some equipment. A family friend of de Castro’s, who has been visiting from Venezuela in the last few weeks, taught him how to perfect his arepas and cachapas, “how they do it there”, he says.

The arepas have to be made and eaten fresh. But the cachapas can be pre-cooked and finished on the grill when the time is right.

He lifts the lid off a pot full of pulled flank steak mixed with pepper, onions, and spices.

Fillings for the arepas are slow-cooked, whether it’s steak, pulled chicken, or mushrooms, and he likes to make sure the vegetables are caramelised first. (The arepas cost between €6 and €8.)

He might make more reselling croissants at hiked up prices, he says. But he wants people to come and learn to eat this.

Back in Spain, he used to work on the “bird council” and says he learned to value meat properly after having to shoot so many birds on the job. “It made me appreciate what eating meat means.”

As lunchtime nears, customers start to trickle in. Many speak Spanish to Sanchez-Gil as he starts to take out bowls of corn, peppers, and leaves.

He cuts open an arepa, releasing a plume of steam, and spreads some butter on the inside before filling it with pulled steak and serving it with salad to his waiting customer.

The arepa is firm to touch and cracks on contact with cutlery. The mushroom filling is slow-cooked in garlic, herbs and a little whiskey or vodka.

There’s a sweet moment, when the juices soak into the soft inside of the arepa, and the outside stays crisp.

Breakfast Time

Another customer comes and places a big order for a bit of everything. He jokes that his mates at work complain he never brings them any back.

Stephen McMahon works in a school nearby and he’s been coming to the cafe since it opened. The place attracts regulars.

“It’s like being in Juan’s kitchen. It’s not like a commercial experience,” he says. “When I come in, with the music, the smells, the decor, it’s like a little holiday. There’s more to it than just food.”

McMahon’s favourite is the cachapa, which Sanchez-Gil warms on the grill and serves with a Venezuelan cheese called sabanero. It’s a mild flavour, less salty than feta and more melty.

“Cachapas I could have every day. They’re kind of sweet, and with a fried egg on top. It’s the best breakfast in Dublin,” says McMahon.

For now, the café opens for lunch 12pm to 3pm, Monday to Saturday, and Thursday to Saturday for dinner.

Sanchez-Gil is in the second year of a nutrition course, so it’s tough for him to run the café on the side, with no other staff.

Just Add Beer

Before he opened The House of Salads, Sanchez-Gil’s dream was to open a micro-brewery.

He couldn’t muster the investment, though, so he opened a restaurant instead. It was expensive, but he managed.

“Once we get more money, I will have people who can work with me,” he says.

Then, hopefully, the micro-brewery, he says. “I think beer will go fantastically well with this type of food.”

For now, The House of Salads sells a selections of Spanish wines too. In September, Sanchez-Gil hopes to get a beer licence, so he can start to make and sell his own beer.

Days vary but business is generally solid. “Sometimes we can’t cope with demand,” he says.

But he wants to build slowly and keep it consistent. “The competition is huge, it’s important to stay aware,” he says. So he listens to his customers.

He wipes down the counter tops and sways subtly to the music.

He loves salsa and reggae, but will put on French music for French customers, and Venezuelan music for Venezuelans, he says – just to make them feel at home.

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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