Arepitas, a charming little restaurant in Harker Heights, is shining a light on a cultural style of cooking that is unique here.

“Venezuelan food is about freshness and is an explosion on the palate,” said Tony Caselle, 30, owner and chef. He and wife, Maria Fernanda Rodriquez, 30, also a chef, recently relocated their eatery from inside a gas station to a restaurant in the strip mall at 360 W. Central Texas Expressway.

Freshness, attention to detail and great customer service are the key ingredients in their cooking.

“Customer service is our number one priority,” he said. “People appreciate we make everything authentic and in that moment; it takes a little longer, but it’s worth it.”

The food is cholesterol and gluten free, contains no MSG or additives and uses Black Angus beef. The traditional Venezuelan arepa is a cornmeal flatbread that is grilled, split open and stuffed with endless combinations, including shredded beef, pork, and chicken, along with a cabbage salad, avocado and white cheese; and other fillings. Among the types are the Hairy, shredded beef and shredded cheese; the Blond with grilled chicken; and the Texan with jalapeno peppers.

A vegetarian version has white cheese, sweet plantains and avocado and cabbage salad.

Empanadas come in beef, chicken and cheese and the Pepito is a sandwich with meat, onions and cabbage salad.

Tostones are twice-fried plantain slices topped with cabbage salad, cheese and avocado slices. Other menu items include Cachapa, sweet corn pancake, and Pabellon with shredded beef, black beans and plantains.

Lunching on a beef arepa, Sol Rivera said she dines at Arepitas as often as she can. “The quality is really good and the way the food is presented is awesome,” she said.

The couple prefers to keep the menu small with 16 items, since most of the food can be combined in multiple ways. “We believe in reduced menus because we can maintain the freshness,” he said.

Back in their home of Caracas, Venezuela, Caselle was a graphic designer and Rodriquez a visual communications journalist, but they shared a common love for cooking. They dreamt of owning a restaurant there but it was too expensive.

About two years ago, they joined family members living in Killeen, including a relative in the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Hood.

They worked in another restaurant before opening their own inside a convenience store on W. Stan Schlueter Loop in February 2016.

“It was just a countertop where we took orders and customers loved watching us make the food in front of them,” Rodriquez said. But with only a few tables for people to sit and eat, they knew that they needed to find a larger place.

When the suite became available — previously it was a pizza parlor — Caselle and Rodriquez jumped at the opportunity.

It took about two weeks to clean and paint the 1,250-square-foot restaurant, replace the large ovens with grills and deep fryers, then rearrange the kitchen work area. Arepitas opened on Oct. 16.

Tony’s mother, Kery Toffoli, is one of the workers who does everything from prep work to serving customers, and she loves every minute. “We adore our customers and they love our food and that makes us so happy,” Toffoli said.

Arepita means “little” and is used to describe something cute. Thanks to social media, along with great customer reviews, this cute restaurant is getting known everywhere. Customers from Houston, Waco and San Antonio call ahead to make certain the restaurant is open and to place an order.

One customer said his meal at Arepitas was better than the food he ate in Paris.

“If you don’t love what you’re doing, you won’t be successful,” Caselle said.

A regular, Nivea Silva, stopped by for her weekly lunch. She works in Killeen, lives in Belton, and made her first visit to the new location.

“You can taste the care, love and pride they cook in each morsel,” Silva said.

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