UNTIL Coupa Cafe opened a few months ago, almost any homesick Venezuelan would have groused about the dearth of arepas in L.A. True, several Colombian restaurants around town serve their own version of the griddle-baked corn cakes (they're also staples in that country), but arepas are still a pretty obscure commodity here.
And none are quite like the ones at Coupa Cafe. At this fashionably appointed Beverly Hills coffee house, tortilla-thin arepas are filled not only with traditional Colombian ingredients but also California goat cheese or Scottish-style smoked salmon with cultured cream.
"In Venezuela, arepas are like bread in other countries," the menu explains. They're eaten at every meal any time, filled or unfilled, and are often purchased at specialty shops called areperas.
The distinguishing feature of Coupa Cafe's arepas is their delicacy. Thin, almost fragile disks about the diameter of a coffee cup are cut open clam shell-style to accommodate fillings (think of a small, filled pita sandwich). The refined shells, redolent of corn, pair perfectly with even the most elegant fillings.
Among the more traditional fillings are fresh white cheese and nata, a lightly cultured cream; Venezuelan-style chicken salad shredded and tossed with house-made mayonnaise; and carne machada (shredded stewed beef shot through with garlic and onion flavors) and black beans.
The cafe's Beverly Hills neighborhood might seem an unusual choice of location to introduce what began as essentially rural comfort foods.
But Coupa Cafe's menu is ambitious, including hearty yet delicately crusted and amply filled meal-size empanadas, and pabellon, a flavorful, rustic stew of shredded beef surrounded by black beans, fried ripe plantains and arepitas (mini unfilled arepas). A traditional Venezuelan breakfast of eggs scrambled with tomato and sweet red pepper naturally comes with arepas too.
And the kitchen's choice of ingredients reflects the sensibilities of the neighborhood: The roast chicken is Rocky Jr., the croissants are all-butter, the oatmeal is Irish and the fresh mozzarella on salads and panini is locally produced.
A wonderful selection of five Spanish cheeses, on the afternoon I order it with my usual guayoyo, includes a buttery Majon from Majorca and a cave-aged D.O. Valdeon, a blue-veined cheese from Leon wrapped in grape leaves.
The cheeses come with fig-almond cake, house-made berry compote and dry-cured Spanish Serrano ham freshly sliced off the bone.
Unfortunately the servers, although willing and thoughtful, often haven't a clue as to the qualities or even the names of these special cheeses. "They're all from Manchego," one offered.
But food is just part of the package here.
As at its other two branches (in Caracas and Palo Alto), a big part of the business at Coupa Cafe is selling about 18 varieties of single estate, shade-grown, hand-picked Venezuelan coffees, as beans or brewed.
The cafe's proprietors also own Arabica Coffee Co., a boutique concern that buys coveted heirloom Bourbon, Criollo and Typica beans directly from small Venezuelan coffee-growing fincas (coffee-growing estates).
I'm hooked on the house-blend guayoyo; it's what Italians would call an Americano. Served in a heated china cup, it has marvelous depth of flavor without being too acidic.
One of the most comforting ways to enjoy the guayoyo, or any of the cafe's coffee drinks, is to curl up next to the small fireplace at the rear of the room. Or you might want to sit at the sleek coffee bar where you can check out the contents of the sparkling pastry cases.
Coupa Cafe's dessert cases are filled with bonbons from Venezuelan chocolatier, Chuao. The fancy desserts, many made with premium Venezuelan chocolate, are created for the cafe by a Singaporean patissier and have a gentle sweetness suited to European palates.
Rich Venezuelan hot chocolate comes plain or as "Maya" chocolate, amped up with pepper and other spices.
You might expect that the best arepas and other countrified comfort foods from around the world will be found locally only at street vendors or homey mom and pop cafes. But Cafe Coupa's arepas have found a perfect niche in Beverly Hills.
Location: 419 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 385-0420; www.coupacafe.com.
Price: Arepas with salad, $5 to $8; sandwiches, pastas and entrees, $9.50 to $17; desserts, $7.25.
Best dishes: Arepas, flamingo cheese platter, chocolate tart, Maya chocolate (hot or cold).
Details: Open daily 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Beer and wine. All major cards. City lot parking next door.