When Victor Aguilera came up with the idea for Arepas en Bici, the bicycle-powered arepa delivery service he started after getting laid off from his chef’s gig at the beginning of the pandemic, the goal wasn’t only survival: When Aguilera looked at the paucity of Venezuelan dining options across San Francisco, he wanted to do something to lift up his native cuisine. What better way than to ride his bicycle all over the city, hand-delivering freshly griddled arepas?
Now that the holidays are rolling in, Arepas en Bici wants to introduce SF diners to some of Venezuela’s most famous holiday foods, including the banana leaf-wrapped bundles known as hallacas and pan de jamon, a traditional Christmas bread. Over the holidays, those two items are ubiquitous in Venezuela, Aguilera says — but he’s never encountered a restaurant that serves either one during his four years in the Bay Area.
“Everyone that I ask, they don’t know what [these dishes are], so I saw it as an opportunity to share something that I love.” Aguilera says. “And I’d like to give those Venezuelans who are missing home the opportunity to feel closer to home.”
Like everything else on the Arepas en Bici menu, the holiday dishes will be available for both takeout and home delivery by bicycle anywhere in San Francisco (or via normal, car-based delivery for customers in the East Bay). Here in the U.S., Aguilera says, they’re as appropriate for the Thanksgiving table as they are for Christmas.
For Aguilera, the two dishes have deep personal significance. The hallaca, he says, was his very favorite thing to eat when he was growing up in Venezuela. Often described as “Venezuelan tamales” — though Aguilera, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek national pride, says they’re like “a tamale but better” — the banana leaf-wrapped dough cakes feature masa that’s rolled flat and then filled with a rich guiso, or stew, of pork, beef, chicken, olives, and raisins. Unlike a tamal, wherein the dough and filling get mixed together, the hallaca dough is more like a corn-scented sheath that stays separate, encasing the guiso. And what really sets the hallacas apart, Aguilera says, is that even when you reheat them after they’ve been frozen for a long time, the insides come out perfectly moist and fresh every time.
In fact, Aguilera says, it’s a longstanding Venezuelan tradition to try to stuff your freezer full of enough hallacas at Christmas time that you can eat them all through the year. “It’s like a gift — and it’s wrapped like a gift too.”
Aguilera recalls everyone in his family going to his grandmother’s house every year, back in Venezuela, for a day-long hallaca-assembling extravaganza. “You hear stories about Italians eating the raw dough for making pasta when they were kids,” Aguilera says. “I used to eat the raw dough or the guiso and just sneak out and eat it under the table — to try to not do any of the work.”
Those treasured memories are even more poignant now, as Aguilera’s grandmother passed away a couple of months ago. The hallacas he makes now are his grandmother’s recipe, and he’s selling them this holiday season in her honor.
The other dish Aguilera associates with childhood Christmas celebrations is the pan de jamon, a kind of rolled loaf that’s also eaten during the holidays in Venezuela. Aguilera fills his version with Black Forest ham, bacon, olives, and raisins, and adds a little bit of brown sugar and a secret homemade glaze. Then he rolls the whole thing up, kind of like a cinnamon roll. Once baked, the bread is cut into festive, salty-sweet slices, with the occasional pop of brininess from the olives — again, a nostalgic taste for folks who grew up in Venezuela.
Because they’re more time-intensive, the pan de jamon ($25) requires three days’ advance notice, Aguilera says. The hallacas ($12), on the other hand, should be available all the time. (And a vegan hallaca, stuffed with jackfruit “carnitas,” is also in the works.) Both items, along with a few other holiday specials, will be available to be pre-ordered, in both fresh and frozen versions, from now through December 24.
Arepas en Bici is open for both pickup and delivery, to all of SF (via bicycle) and parts of the East Bay, Friday through Monday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Customers can order online and pay via Venmo.