Anything can suffer at the hands of America's corporate mentality. Take Deli-Arepas, for example. It's a restaurant serving quick, fresh, cheap South American cuisine -- namely its namesake, the arepas, a heated cornbread sandwich stuffed with assorted meat, vegetables and/or cheeses. And while the food itself is a great alternative to the burger-and-fries lunch rut, owners Carlos Mata (a mortgage banker) and Ramon Arocha (formerly of the Tavern at Phipps) have allowed not even a hint of individuality to invade Deli-Arepas' Sandy Springs location. Walking in, you may think you're at Subway. The too-polished seating, too-cute logo and too-corporate mission statement emblazoned on the wall don't lend much to a cozy dining experience. Instead, the restaurant is what you might call "ethnic in a box" -- and it looks like the idea may be shipped far and wide if the test market gives it a thumbs-up.
You say arepas: The arepas is a simple sandwich that is to Colombia and Venezuela what tamales are to Mexico. The dough is shaped by hand into small, round cakes and cooked in front of you on an open griddle until a golden brown crust forms. Then it's sliced and hollowed out to make room for the fillings. The restaurant offers a long list of varieties, including pescado (sauteed fish with spices, $3.95), queso amarillo (sharp cheddar, $3.80) and reina pepiada (chicken salad and avocado, $3.95). Don't be fooled by the pollo mechado (jerked chicken): Although the name is translated as "jerked," it doesn't bear much resemblance to its Caribbean counterpart -- the boneless chicken needs to be punched up with plenty of hot sauce.
I say spicy: The house sauces save the day. A bland arepas needs to be kicked up with the salsa roja (red) or salsa verde (green) hot sauces available at the tables. Keep it handy -- you'll want to squirt a bit on every bite. If you need even more heat, bottles of habanero sauce are available. Don't bother with the salsa blanca (garlic cream sauce), which tastes like a boring Ranch dressing.
Other eats: Everyone else seemed to be going for the Cuban sandwich, so I tried it. Strange that it's so popular at a South American restaurant, but it's a deal to get half a Cubano with a side of black beans and yellow rice for $5.95. The crispy, flat Cuban contains the requisite layers of ham, pork, cheese and pickles, though mine had too much mayo ($7.50 for a full sandwich plate).
Cheapest item: Empanadas are available for $1.85, but they're not that filling. The thick cornbread wrapper held a scant bit of meat. The carne mechada (marinated shredded beef) was tame, and the salsa had to come to the rescue again.
Sweet stuff: Try the mango lemonade. It's a bit pricey at $2 a glass, but it's not too sweet or too sour. If you're looking for more sweet treats, there's a cavity-inducing tres leches (three-milk cake, $2.95) and a quesillo (Venezuelan cheese cake, $2.95).