All-Around Arepas

Three versions of South America's greatest sandwich

The next time a taco craving strikes, opt for an arepa instead.

South America's customizable sandwich starts with an eminently stuffable cornmeal patty. It can be fried, grilled or baked; it's folded over butter and cheese, pulled pork, sliced steak, a scoop of beans, or limitless other combinations.

At Guarapo in Arlington, arepa architects can go to town with a tasting platter ($16) featuring a half-dozen mini corn cakes surrounded by tempting mounds of tender, chimichurri-drenched steak, peppery pulled chicken, onion-laced ground beef and homemade pico de gallo.

La Caraqueña in Falls Church compiles nearly a dozen overstuffed takes, each 4 inches in diameter and bursting with slow-cooked meats. Favorites include the traditional carne mechada ($9)–a tangle of shredded beef cooked to a stew with peppers, onions and tomatoes–and the cheese-laden sifrina ($9), with chicken, mayonnaise and a bright pile of mashed avocado.

As a U Street sports bar, Nellie's could seems like an unlikely place for authentic arepas, but the bar dresses build-your-own arepas, each with up to two fillings, stocking each plate (pictured; $12) with a two-handed sandwich, fried plantains, black beans and tortilla chips. We especially enjoyed the ropa vieja (savory stewed beef); salty, cheesy queso blanco; and perico–scrambled eggs mixed with pico de gallo.