Mi Pana Latin American Cuisine in National City
Call me optimistic, but I still believe food has the power to bring people of the world together, even if the times call for us to maintain a certain distance. Under normal circumstances, restaurants serving national or cultural cuisines create something tangible that can link us to the humanity of people in faraway places we might otherwise only hear about in the news. Though I remain bullish on the potential potency of black ink on paper, I doubt it’s done more to repair American sentiment felt toward former national adversaries than linguini, bratwurst, sushi, or phở.
2241 Highland Ave, National City
Today, with most of us stuck at home, and future travel plans uncertain at best, I find myself reliant on the power of take-out for that link to other cultures. It’s this pursuit that took me to National City, to pick up an order from Mi Pana Latin American Cuisine, which specializes in Venezuelan and Colombian dishes, as well as Mexican. Mi Pana, by the way, translates to “my friend.”
Opened last summer by a nearly twenty-year transplant from Venezuala , Mi Pana offers a deep menu punctuated by tacos, burritos, tortas, and Mexican soups. But by its own estimation, the stylish little counter restaurant’s specialties are patacones and arepas.
A Venezuela, Colombian, and Mexican food counter shop
Arepas, I have seen before. We’ve only a handful of Colombian restaurants around San Diego, but they all offer some variations on this cornmeal flatbread, used to create sandwiches (or stuffed sandwiches) of the same name. The breads themselves are typically described to as sitting somewhere between tortillas and corn flour pancakes. However, after trying Mi Mana’s arepa Americana, with grilled flatbread (fried being the alternative), another comparison comes to mind: English muffin.
Though not as airy, nor quite as bready, as an English muffin, the thickness and texture prove similar enough. Likely helping this comparison is the fact my order was essentially a breakfast sandwich, made with fried egg, cheese, bacon (or ham), and butter.
A fried egg, cheese, and bacon arepa 'Americana'
Mi Pana points out something that might otherwise have eluded me: these arepas are gluten free, whether made with steak, shrimp, pulled pork, birria, black beans, avocado, or any combination available.
Patacones are entirely new to me. Turns out, like the arepas, these sandwiches are named for the bread used to make them. Except it’s not bread: patacones are fried plantains.
A patacone, sandwich made with fried ripe plantains rather than bread
Which means they’re gluten-free. I wasn’t sure how banana-like plantains could be used in sandwich construction, and the short answer would be: messily. Wide strips of plantain are flattened and fried together into something vaguely resembling sliced bread, though thinner and greasy to the touch. I opted for ripe plantains, whereas the other option is green plantains, which are starchier and more potato-like, and likely less sloppy.
But, despite requiring heavy use of napkins, the ripe patacones holding together my beef birria sandwich imparted the plantain’s signature caramelized sweetness, which matched better than I expected with savory stewed beef, shredded lettuce, and guacamole.
As it has for years, the U.S. State department warns against Americans traveling to Venezuela, and that seems unlikely to change soon. Indeed, the news out of Venezuela in recent times has not, as a rule, been good. The nation struggles with coronavirus, a controversial president, food distribution issues, and an economy entirely too dependent on the oil market.
Call me crazy, but while enjoying a couple of tasty Venezuelan sandwiches, I get the sense Americans can relate.