Meet Daniela Leon, Milwaukee's arepa queen
If you've paid a visit to dandan in the Third Ward over the lunch hour, you've likely been greeted by Daniela Leon. And if you have, you're likely to remember. After all, she's full of spunk and generally always has a smile on her face.
The Venezuelan native is also a whiz at making arepas, the traditional corn flatbreads which can be filled with any number of toppings. It's skill she she's been honing and hopes to build into a food truck business with the goal of launching it sometime next year.
In preparation for the launch of her truck, she's been working on a series of arepa pop-ups at Amilinda, the first of which took place on March 19.
"It went really well," Leon notes. "We sold around 180 arepas in less than three hours. There was a huge line outside. And we had an entire table of about 18 people from Venezuela. It was a great feeling. So many people stopped by the kitchen and thanked Greg [Leon]. And he told them 'No, it was all Daniela.' It felt great to have my food compared with one of the top chefs."
Falling for Milwaukee
It was February 2014 when Leon made her first visit to Milwaukee. And despite the cold weather – and snow! – she says she fell in love with the city.
"I just loved it here," she says. "At the time, my cousin Gregory Leon was in the process of opening his restaurant. And the situation at home was pretty volatile in terms of safety and politics, so I needed a moment to step away and consider my future."
Leon, who earned her degree in marketing, had been working in customer service for international telecom company Movistar. But, she says, she was ready to move on. Her trip to Milwaukee sealed the deal. But, when she moved to the Cream City, she needed work. At first, she cobbled together various jobs including washing dishes at the National and helping her cousin with his pop-up events. She also started helping out Steve Perlstein by working on the Simmer Truck.
Leon says she's always loved to cook, and her work on the truck provided her with a vision for what she wanted to do.
"I fell in love with the food truck industry," she says. "To me, it was like having the ultimate freedom. You can go anywhere and meet all sorts of people. And it's really active and fun."
She discussed her interest with Perlstein, who encouraged her to consider the idea. From there, she approached her cousin Chef Greg Leon with the idea of holding an arepa pop-up at Amilinda.
Arepas are Venezuelan flatbreads (pita) made from corn. Their origin can be traced back hundreds of years to various indigenous tribes who inhabited the areas now known as Colombia and Venezuela. These tribes are likely to have made their arepas with yucca, an ingredient still used in some areas, along with plantains and, most commonly, corn.
Traditionally eaten as an accompaniment to a meal, arepas have gained popularity as a dish of their own, and can be eaten plain (called viuda) or filled with a variety of ingredients from more traditional ingredients like shredded beef and beans or chicken and avocado to more inventive fillings which depart solidly from tradition.
"I love arepas," says Leon when we ask her why she chose to concentrate her efforts on the traditional Venezuelan snack. "By themselves, they're very basic. But, the fillings are really what makes them alive."
Leon, who makes her arepas with a white corn meal dough that's grilled and then crisped in the oven, says she's focused her efforts on more traditional fillings, both in an effort to introduce people to the dish, as well as hone in on flavors that resonate so that she can formulate the menu for her food truck.
Among the flavors she's tackled is the pelua (a word which means "hairy") with shredded beef with cheddar cheese; the domino (like the game) with black beans and white cheese; catira (a word meaning "blondie") featuring shredded chicken and cheddar; and the rumbera (translated as "the clubber/partier") with pulled pork and cheese. There's also the popular reina pepiada filled with shredded chicken, mayonnaise and avocado.
"Way back in history, they used the name 'pepiada' to describe something that was really good," notes Leon. "And this arepa is one that has a story behind it. It was named for Susana Dujim, who won the Miss World pageant in 1955."
Each arepa comes with a choice of three sauces: guasacaca ("avocado cream"), quemate la cara ("burn your face") hot sauce or garlic sauce.
Leon says she'll do a few more pop-ups before launching her truck, hopefully by the end of 2017 or early 2018. In the meantime, she says she'd love to happen upon someone who loves her cooking enough to invest in the business.
Leon is hosting her second Arepera Milwaukee pop-up at Amilinda, 315 E. Wisconsin Ave., on May 21 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. or until the arepas sell out. Arepas are priced $6-7, depending on the fillings.
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