Inside one of Tucson’s newest food trucks, a photograph of an older woman stands out on a back wall. She smiles broadly, as if in approval of the flurry of activity unfolding in the tiny kitchen on wheels.
On this particular day, Maria Alvalle and William Zambrano dish out arepas, cachapas, empanadas, and other Venezuelan food staples to lunch customers waiting at tables underneath a white canopy. The smell of arepas, or corn patties, fills the air.
Andrew and Anna Nelson are trying some of the South American country’s food for the first time. They say Ricuras de Venezuela Arepas & More is a nice addition to Tucson’s food-truck scene. Maxine Gallego is here, again, with her granddaughter, Alexandria. Both came for arepas stuffed with shredded beef.
“I’ve brought all my kids and grandkids here since I discovered it,” Gallego says of the food truck.
It is here, on the northeast corner of Grant Road and Fairview Avenue, that Ricuras de Venezuela parks from Tuesday through Friday. It moves downtown on weekends, when hungry nightclub revelers line up for the ricuras behind Hotel Congress late in the evening.
That her Venezuelan food venture has been so well received, and experienced healthy growth in the past few months, took the owner, Marlene Baquet, by surprise. But it was something that her late mother, Esther Sifontes, whose picture hangs in the food truck, had no doubt would occur, Baquet recalls.
“She often talked about opening a Venezuelan restaurant,” Baquet says. “She used to say it would do very well because we didn’t know of any other place in Tucson that features Venezuelan food.”
After Sifontes passed away in May 2014, Baquet set out to fulfill her mother’s wishes and, on last New Year’s Eve, Ricuras de Venezuela made its debut appearance in the heart of downtown.
That first week, Marlene had on hand 15 pounds of meat to prepare the fillings for various dishes. Six months later, 200 pounds of meat lasted a little more than a week.
The venture is a family affair and involves not only her husband, Steve, but also their children and other relatives. She’s hired a handful of employees that staff the food truck while she and her husband run an insurance company. But each week, cooking Venezuelan food seems to take up more of her time. Not that Baquet minds, but she’s had to adjust her schedule so she can spend more time cooking food for the truck at a southside commissary.
The other day, she had to stop by the commissary sooner than expected because the food truck had run out of picadillo, a ground-beef mixture used to stuff corn empanadas, which resemble hot pockets. It is there, while mixing meat with spices, sliced scallions, and cilantro, that she conjures up the techniques she first learned while watching her mother cook back home in La Guaira, a port city some 15 miles northwest of Caracas, the capital of Venezuela.
Her mother had a gift for cooking and could make superb meals for the family with just a few simple ingredients, Baquet recalls. “We were not rich, but we ate like royalty.”
When relatives and close friends tell her she cooks just like her mom, Baquet says it is the highest praise she could ever receive. “If that is true, then it is my mother’s hand guiding me,” she adds.
Although Sifontes had yearned to establish a sit-down restaurant, her daughter’s other obligations made her turn to a food truck because she thought a smaller operation would be easier to manage. Baquet was close to giving up on finding a food truck she could outfit to her liking when she came across a brand-new one for sale. She snapped it up and covered it in the yellow, blue, and red of the Venezuelan flag.
For most people who drop by for a taste of Venezuelan staples, the food truck’s bright colors merely add to a festive atmosphere punctuated by salsa music and conversation. But to those familiar with Venezuelan history, like the regular crowd of Venezuelans who wait for the food truck to arrive downtown on weekends, their arepas come wrapped in political symbolism.
“That’s my Venezuela!” is a patriotic cry that some expatriates let out when they notice that the food truck has painted on it a Venezuelan flag with an arc of only sevenstars, not the usual eight, and a galloping white horse craning its neck.
Baquet is well aware that her native country’s flag now has eight stars, and that the horse on the coat of arms gallops in a different direction. President Hugo Chávez pushed for the controversial changes before he died in 2013.
But Baquet wants the food truck symbols to reflect the Venezuela of the past, not the one now plagued with civil unrest and economic hardship.
“When I left Venezuela about 20 years ago, it had none of the problems it has now,” the entrepreneur says. “In some way, I want to preserve the country I left behind, which was a beautiful country, a rich country.”
And here, in her adopted country, she wants to share a piece of Venezuela through her food.
“I want to take the Ricuras de Venezuela food truck to a different level,” she says.
Her aim is for people to enjoy the food as if it were being served at a choice restaurant, so she uses high-quality ingredients, some organic, and strives for authenticity and good presentation.
Maria Alvalle, who has worked at the food truck since it first rolled out, says that although she and other employees cut vegetables and make arepas her meticulous boss still does most of the cooking and prepares all the meat.
Alvalle, like other employees who staff the food truck alongside Baquet’s family members, is originally from Mexico, but she’s become adept at shaping the popular patties. At the food truck, arepas are lightly fried, and sliced in half, with the excess dough, or masa, carved out and replaced with a meat filling. Alvalle, a friend of Baquet and her mother for years, says her boss is not the only one who looks to Esther Sifontes for inspiration.
“I see her in the picture, and I feel her presence here, helping me to make arepas,” Alvalle says.
William Zambrano, Baquet’s son from a previous relationship, says he learned long ago to make arepas because he grew up surrounded by female cooks.
But at the food truck, he’d rather take orders and chat with customers who want their main course with a side of history.
“Americans want to know more about Venezuela, and Venezuelans want to talk about how this food reminds them about Venezuela,” he says.
All of it is music to Baquet’s ears. And although she says the work can sometimes prove exhausting, she’s already thinking about a possible franchise.
If it makes his wife happy, Steve Baquet is also on board. “It is really her and her mom’s passion and dream, and I’m there for support,” he says.
Ricuras de Venezuela Arepas & More. Facebook.com/RicurasDeVenezuela. 520.389.0689.
Lourdes Medrano is a Tucson writer who covers stories on both sides of the border. Follow her on Twitter: @_lourdesmedrano.