Change—one of the immutable laws of nature, as well as the restaurant industry. For proof, see Mandoca, a new Venezuelan lunch and dinner spot that opened in the old Hukilau Hut space on Bee Ridge on Sept. 20.
Aside from the new sign out front, when you walk in, you'd never know anything had changed. The Hawaiian vibe of the old eatery remains intact, with a giant mural depicting waves, sand and volcanoes, and plates that are shaped and designed to resemble island button-downs. Some of Hukilau's sandwiches and salads have even stuck around. It's just that now they come complemented with a selection of South American items printed up on the menu's final page.
Mandoca is the brainchild of Jesus Valoz, a Venezuelan native who worked as an electrical engineer in Texas before getting into the food biz. His menu is stocked with arepas, pabellón, empanadas, tequeños and more—Venezuelan comfort items that Valoz is eager to explain and discuss.
Lunch begins with tequeños ($1.65), fried sticks of cheese not unlike the mozzarella sticks you're certainly familiar with. (Unless you're a dishonest scoundrel.) Cheese appears inside one of Mandoca's arepas ($4.25), too. The shop's arepas have about the same diameter as a bocce ball—slim pockets of corn dough that have been griddled to extreme crispiness. They're so crispy, in fact, that they're difficult to slice with a knife. The shredded beef arepa ($4.95) is a particular highlight, stuffed with ground beef sautéed with the slightest bit of tomato and leavened with small hunks of potato.
For a bigger hit of cow, go for the shredded beef pabellón ($8.25), a platter that includes a tidy pile of meat, a generous helping of rice, a handful of plantains and a bowl of black beans. The beef consists of long strings of meat, flavored subtly with red bell peppers. The texture of the meat is right on—tender but still substantial, with a bit of chew but hardly chewy. The rice, meanwhile, is fluffy, the plantains are soft and sweet and the bowl of beans provides garlicky heft.
The same shredded beef and cheese also come stuffed inside the shop's empanadas ($3.75). They're fried, not baked, which makes for an extra-crispy shell that keeps the insides piping hot for a hot minute and more. Mike—friend, lunch companion and aspiring Yelp troll—smacks his lips and points out that the cheese possesses "almost like a hint of lemon." I smack my lips, too. Oh, indeed.
I'm not as crazy about Mandoca's pepito ($7.25)—a sub that's roughly the size of a cluster bomb, with a filling made with strips of beef, hunks of bacon and a number of other toppings. It's OK, but difficult to eat, and the beef isn't as flavorful as it is in the shredded or ground preparations. The espresso—made from coffee that's roasted on site—is fine, but could use a little bit more crema.
Another miss: The menu points out that the name Mandoca comes from a Venezuelan dish, a fried cornmeal ring served at breakfast with butter and cheese, but the restaurant doesn't actually serve the dish. That's crushing news, but let's hope for change. A Hawaiian-themed Bee Ridge shop selling Venezuelan cuisine is proof that that's the world's one constant.
Mandoca is located at 2253 Bee Ridge Road, Sarasota, and is open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday. For more info, call (941) 925-0400 or click here.