Within 5 minutes of hearing about White Maize, I knew I had to give it a try. It didn’t look like anything all that special—it’s just an arepa joint that opened this past fall on Brooklyn’s restaurant-dotted Smith Street—but that was precisely why I was so interested. I tend to get pretty excited about one-trick restuarants, as their teeny-tiny menus are (to me, at least) a lot less worry-inducing than those that are more well-rounded. And plus, the one-category food in question at these sorts of places tends to benefit from all the extra attention.
Within 10 minutes of hearing about White Maize, I was on the phone. And within 12, I’d heard everything I’d wanted to hear. There are no tree nuts (or peanuts) in White Maize’s kitchen—and while their ingredients aren’t guaranteed to all be free from cross-contamination, pretty much everything that goes into their food (stuff like meats, cheeses, beans, and herbs) is low-risk and simple. So in all, I’m entirely comfortable with White Maize’s food.
And you know, the food’s pretty damn good. It’s not quite as good as I would’ve hoped, given the distance from my apartment (far-ish) and the prices (steep-ish), but it’s nonetheless good enough that I’m happy to make the occasional two-train trek out to Carroll Gardens to get my fix.
The restaurant itself, by the way, is bright and modern, with wood-panel walls, some CB2-looking hanging lights, a few tables (some communal, unfortunately), and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto Smith. The employees are friendly and helpful, and though the food takes a while to come out, it feels worth the wait. (Imagine eating a soggy-ass arepa that’s been sitting around under a warmer for the last 30 minutes. Ick. So I’ll do my best not to bitch about White Maize’s 10-minute delay.)
So far, I’ve tried a grand total of four of White Maize’s nine arepas, and two of their four appetizers, too. My favorite of the arepas is easily the Parrilla, which is made with grilled steak, grilled tomato, grilled avocado, and grilled cheese, and which is pictured in the foreground of the photo at the top of this post. The steak is ridiculously soft and tender—the folks at White Maize will cook it perfectly to the doneness of your choosing—and the grilled cheese and avocado were nice touches, too.
My only complaint was that the arepa as a whole could used a little more pop—but that’s what salsa’s for, isn’t it? Fortunately, White Maize offers two squirt-bottle sauces: one red (a little spicy, and a little boring, but fine), and one green (spice-less, avocado-based, and the love of my life). The latter sauce is necessary—and in large quantities, too—for nearly everything at White Maize. Without it, most of these dishes end up being a little underwhelming, but as soon as I get my hands on one of those squirt bottles, I’m set.
I also like the Pelua arepa, which is made with pulled beef and gouda. Admittedly, it’s a little (okay, a lot) boring, but with a few squirts of the aforementioned sauce, it turns into a whole other creation. The pulled beef is good, and the gouda is cheese, after all—so really, there’s nothing (slight boringness aside) not to like.
Also pretty good: the Reina arepa, made with “chicken breast and avocado salad.” The first time I ordered it, I figured it’d contain (a) chicken breast and (b) avocado salad—that’s what the menu’s (lack of) punctuation implies, at least—but it doesn’t. So I’d like to submit a somewhat pedantic (but actually pretty significant) correction to the folks at White Maize: This filling is one cohesive salad that’s comprised of both chicken breast and avocado, so it should be referred to as “chicken-breast-and-avocado salad,” and not as “chicken breast and avocado salad.” (I hope that made sense. “Chicken-breast-and-avocado” is here one long compound adjective that describes “salad,” and hyphenating it accordingly would get rid of the ambiguity that allows us to misunderstand the Reina as filled with avocado salad and some chicken breast, too.)
In any case, the Reina (pictured second and third above) is a sort of decent that qualifies as good once sauced up. The chicken itself is the right texture, and the salad it’s part of is all right, if a little bland. (It’s decidedly avocado in color, but not avocado enough in flavor, and if you ask me, it could definitely use some herbs or some citrus, and maybe even some solid chunks of avocado, too.) There’s also a whole lot of olive oil in this thing, to the point that it’s a little overbearing, but honestly, there’s so, so little White Maize’s squirt bottles can’t fix.
I have found one arepa that my beloved green sauce can’t fix, though: the Vuelve a la Vida (English: “return to life”), which is pictured immediately above. It’s filled with shrimp, octopus, and calamari “in cold cocktail salad” (read: smothered in straight cocktail sauce), and it’s just too damn sweet for me. The shrimp is fine, the squid is fine, and the octopus (though there are only maybe two or three pieces per arepa) is particularly good, but the cocktail sauce just ruins the whole thing for me. What otherwise could’ve been a fun, multidimensional seafood-salad-type thing becomes flat and one-note when coated in a sauce as blunt (and sugary!) as this one. And anyway, the sauce makes the arepa itself taste a little too much like an English muffin pizza.
All this talk about arepas and I almost forgot about the sides. It’s a good thing that I didn’t, though, because I actually sort of love White Maize’s. The tequeños—fresh cheese, wrapped in dough and deep fried—are great, and though they’d be even better with their own dipping sauce, the green sauce works well enough. And the empanadas, which come 3 for $7, are wonderful, too. (There’s one pictured in the terrible photograph immediately above.) I usually hate black beans, but they work so well in these that I just might have to change my stance. And the meat—to tell you the truth, I’ve only had these once, and I have no idea what type of meat was in them—is solid, too. The best part, though, is probably the dough: hot, crispy, and just sweet enough. So good.
Anyway. While I can’t deny that White Maize’s arepas are all at least a little lacking, I also can’t deny that I really do have a lot of affection for the place, despite its frequent underwhelmingness. (Apparently that’s not a word. Fuck it.) So I do recommend White Maize—but I also recommend going in with your expectations in check.
…And a full wallet, because this shit ain’t cheap.
Find White Maize at 277 Smith Street, between Degraw and Sackett.