If I told you a tattoo artist opened two restaurants in the same city, you might think I was trying to set up a joke. It’s no joke, and it’s not even that farfetched if you talk to Javier Eastman, who just opened Avenida Venezuelan Food and La Calle Arepas Bar in Norwalk.
So, how does a tattoo artist with almost 25,000 Instagram followers get into the food service industry?
For Eastman, it started when he came to Norwalk by way of Venezuela 17 years ago with dreams of being an artist. Painting and doing graphic design in a new country doesn’t always equate to making money, so he settled in doing construction while still making time to pursue his artistic passions.
Eventually, Eastman got into a profession where he could express himself artistically, and he learned the ropes of tattooing. He’s since won awards for it and opened Causality Tattoo Company in Norwalk in 2015.
Still, Eastman, who will tell you he’s “a little bit eclectic” and likes to stay busy, always had an idea that he’d someday get into the restaurant business. “I’d have flash dreams, even 12 years ago, that I’d open a small restaurant,” he said. “It was on and off, but I really missed the authentic flavors of Venezuela.”
With a successful tattoo business, Eastman was able to save enough to make his restaurant dream a reality. His idea was all about nostalgia. He knew he wanted to do something that reminded him of the flavors of his homeland Venezuela, food similar to what his mother made with help from Eastman and his brother Harold when they were kids. “Small areparias are very popular in Venezuela, we have maybe 20 where I’m from,” he said. “In Venezuela, everyone goes to areparias. They’re common, like diners are here. You go in, doesn’t matter what time, 4 a.m., whatever, they have empanadas ready to go.”
It all resulted in Avenida—on Connecticut Avenue in the former Bagelz/Universal Subs space—and La Calle at 74 North Main Street in SoNo, where Prime Burger used to be.
At Avenida, you can expect an array of empanadas, 16 different stuffed arepas, pastelitos (small savory turnovers filled with meat, cheese, or both), traditional Venezuelan breakfast plates, and a few larger dishes like Pabellón Criollo, Venezuela’s national dish, comprised of shredded beef, rice & beans, fried sweet plantains, egg, avocado, and cheese. Additionally, there are patacón sandwiches (beef, chicken, or pork between deep-fried plantain slices), burgers, and Venezuelan-style hot dogs topped with shredded carrots, cabbage, ham, salsa, cheese, and crushed potato sticks.
All of it is very good, especially the arepas. They’re not at all greasy but each is a meal in itself. Avenida stuffs theirs full, to the point where the meat spills out onto the plate, so grab a stack of napkins. Choose your protein of choice—I like slow-roasted pernil in mine—and if you’d like, add cheese for an authentic Venezuelan arepa experience. There are a few vegetarian arepas if you don’t do meat.
The empanadas (pulled chicken, beef with beans and plantains, or cheese) are worth it too, and are only enhanced by the sauces that generally accompany every dish. The green sauce (generally avocado/pepper based) and pink (mayo/ketchup sauce) are favorites, but the faded orange-looking picante sauce blew me away with it’s smoky, spicy flavor. I would squirt this on anything edible.
If you’re curious, La Calle has a similar menu. It’s essentially an expansion of Avenida’s offerings with more entrée choices. Soon, La Calle will serve wine and beer (liquor license pending), while Avenida will just serve juices and coffee. Also, La Calle is more of a sit-down spot that’s open from lunchtime through dinner, while Avenida’s fast casual vibe caters more to the quick stop breakfast and lunch crowd.
Eastman mentioned that it took a while to get both restaurants going, especially with finding a friendly staff because he wants customers to feel welcome, plus obstacles like putting the right cooks in the kitchen, tweaking recipes to his liking, and the construction that he and his brother did themselves. He envisioned both places as being warm, friendly, and family oriented; Eastman’s wife, son (who’s likely too young to work), mother, and brother (who manages La Calle) are all very present in the business.
Eastman is grateful for it all. “The support from my tattoo customers, friends, local Venezuelan people, and especially my family, it’s just been incredible.”
Avenida Venezuelan Food
280 Connecticut Avenue; Norwalk
(203) 956-7200; http://www.avenidavenezuelanfood.com/