On a recent visit to our local farmers market, a gluten-free sign lured us over to Arepex Grill, a stand specializing in Venezuelan arepas.

Arepas are essentially Venezuelan sandwich bread made with white corn flour, salt and water, making them naturally gluten-free.

The rounds are crispy on the outside and surprisingly tender on the inside, providing the perfect vehicle for all kinds of fillings, from black beans, plantains, avocado, and cheese to shredded chicken and beef.

We have Allan Balestrini (and his mother to whom he credits his recipes) to thank for bringing these South American delicacies to San Diego.

Balestrini came to San Diego in 2007 during turbulent times in Venezuela to be close to his sister, and with a background in international business, he hoped to create his own business here.

“I’d always been my own boss,” he said. “And I wanted that to continue.”

A friend offered him a cart at the farmers market, and Balestrini tried concept after concept, but none really took off. Then in 2013, he shared a plate of arepas with his friend Matt Lashinsky and had his ‘ah-ha’ moment.

“Matt said to me, ‘You have the greatest product right in front of you!’ and he convinced me to explore selling arepas at the market and see if it would be the key to unlock the gate to get to another level,” Balestrini said.

The Arepas were a hit.

“Arepas can be fried, but we grill them the traditional way, making them lower in fat,” he explained.

Delicious on their own, the griddled corn rounds are served stuffed with vegetarian fillings including black beans and sweet plantains and meatier options like shredded chicken and beef that have been slow-cooked with onions and peppers and spices.

Both vegetarian and carnivorous versions are finished with shredded mozzarella and cheddar cheeses and hunks of fresh avocado.

According to Balestrini, traditional Venezuelan food is not spicy, so he keeps bottles of Sriracha on the counter for patrons who like a kick, along with mild, creamy Venezuelan cilantro sauce.

Balestrini is especially grateful for the community support he found in the farmers markets.

“Spanish teachers would try my product in the market, then they’d send their students for extra credit to come speak to me in Spanish and try the national food of Venezuelan to get a bit of culture,” he said.

Selling arepas allowed Balestrini to share a unique food connected to his homeland, and one that happened to be suitable for a wide range of diets.

“Customers are interested in the fact that arepas are low in fat, calories, and are gluten-free. People spread the word and wanted to try them, and once they tasted them, they kept coming back.”

The arepas are served no frills, wrapped in foil to keep them warm, for $11 each.

Visit Arepex Grill

You can find Arepex Grill at farmers markets throughout the week at Welk Resort in Escondido, Mira Mesa, Oceanside, Sunset Market, and Old Poway.

On Friday nights, Arepex Grill caters to the gluten-free community who frequent Duck Foot Brewing Company for its gluten reduced beers, setting up shop right outside the brewery.

Market Hours:

Welk Resort Farmers Market Monday, 3-7pm

Mira Mesa Farmers Market Tuesday, 3-7pm

Oceanside Farmers Market Thursday, 9am-1pm

Sunset Market, Oceanside Thursday, 5-9pm

Duckfoot Brewery Friday, 4-8pm

Poway Farmers Market Saturday 9am-1pm

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