Truck Tales

10 Bucks or Less: Happy Hour Cafe

Sampling Venezuelan street food in a gas station parking lot.

By Cooper Levey-Baker August 16, 2016

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The Happy Hour Cafe

The name Happy Hour Cafe is a bit of a misnomer. For starters, there's no café—unless a splotch of pavement and a single white plastic table count.

It's also difficult to figure when exactly happy hour rolls around. Some days it's 4, other days it's 5, other days even later. Even the guy who answers the phone at the Shell gas station where the Happy Hour truck pulls up can't verify when exactly it will open for business.

As a result, it's taken me a hot minute to actually show up at the right time to sample the truck's cuisine, but arrive I have. Happy hour is in the rearview (we're closer to sunset), but Happy Hour's lime green wheels are still, its generator is still humming and customers are still pulling up. The truck, painted the color of sea foam, is plastered with a big Venezuelan flag on the side.

The flag indicates what to expect. The truck's menu is loaded with South American classics like arepas ($6), cachapas ($6), plantains ($6), empanadas ($2) and tacos ($2), plus a take on a burger that's dubbed the "Venezuelan Whopper" ($5). I'm not inclined to linger here in the parking lot, so I'm taking dinner to go. A pile of Styrofoam boxes keeps me company on the jaunt home.

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Happy Hour Cafe's arepa (right) and tumbarancho

The arepa comes out first. Basically a medium-sized sandwich with thick wheels of corn dough as its bun, the dish comes stuffed with either shredded chicken or beef, plus cheese, tomato and lettuce. The meat itself is largely forgettable, but the whole is satisfying. The dense corn dough has been blackened on the top and bottom, adding some toasted notes. A spicy condiment or a bit of acid would help enliven things.

The tumbarancho ($6) is similar, but better. The sandwich is basically a deep-fried arepa, but after its dip in the oil, it's packed with meat, cheese and cabbage and flavored with mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard. YouTube tells me it's a specialty of Zulia, a far western state in Venezuela, and who am I to argue? I've never sampled much Venezuelan food before. Again, you can order it with either beef or chicken. The shredded beef is an improvement on the chicken, but there's so much else going on here, it's hard to distinguish it. The crunch of the fried corn skin represents an upgrade over the plainer, weightier texture of the arepa. An unusual combo all around, and definitely worth a try.

The cachapa is also based on corn—this time a thin patty the size of a pancake that's fried and then folded over cheese. The difference is that the dough here is sweet, which makes for a surprising blend when paired with the dense, chewy white cheese inside.

I'm not impressed, but maybe I'm not a fair judge: It's gone a bit rubbery during the drive home. Perhaps it's better eaten fresh right there in the gas station parking lot? I'll have to go back to try it again. And next time, rather than take my food to go, I'll stay and soak up the ambiance of the concrete café.

Happy Hour Cafe parks at the Shell station located at 8471 Lockwood Ridge Road, Sarasota, beginning shortly after 5 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. For more info, click here.

Follow Cooper Levey-Baker’s never-ending quest for cheap food on Twitter. Email him at [email protected]. Read past 10 Bucks Or Less columns here.

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