Before Quiero Arepas opened a food counter serving Venezuelan street food inside Avanti Food & Beverage, before the launch of the Quiero Arepas food truck in 2010, even, owners Igor and Beckie Panasewicz sold arepas at Denver Urban Homesteading, a now-closed farmers' market inside a brick warehouse at West Second Avenue and Santa Fe Drive.
There they met and bonded with a chef named Karen Wee Lin Tan Beckman, who was trying to do with Malaysian cuisine what the Panasewiczes were doing with Venezuelan. In 2012, Beckman went on to open Makan Malaysian Cafe at 1859 South Pearl Street, while Quiero Arepas took a different trajectory.
But Beckie says a brick-and-mortar restaurant has long been part of their plan, and she and Igor, who was born and raised in Venezuela before coming to the U.S., began seriously scouting out locations in earnest after opening at Avanti in 2015. "We've seen a lot of new construction and the big prices that come along with getting into them," Beckie explains. "But they just didn't fit who we are or what we're about."
A small, neighborhood shop was what they were after, but the market was tight and nothing was materializing — until Beckman called the couple earlier this year to let them know she'd be closing Makan and to ask if they'd like to take over the lease.
"The Pearl Street Farmers' Market was our biggest spot with the food truck," Beckie continues. "That place helped us build who we are now."
So returning to South Pearl Street was the opportunity she and Igor had been waiting for. They said yes to Beckman's offer and will be taking over the lease as of January 1, with a goal of opening a few months into the new year. "We're really excited to be part of the neighborhood again," Beckie says, noting that longstanding businesses like the Den corner trio (Sushi Den, Izakaya Den and Ototo) add positive energy to Platt Park and Old South Pearl.
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"First quarter is not ideal for opening," Beckie notes. "So we're projecting March or April — but we're not in a big hurry." The kitchen, she adds, is in great shape, and they're purchasing nearly all of Makan's equipment, so the transition will be smooth. Apart from some redesign of the small dining room and rebranding with the Quiero motif and a big wall mural (similar to the one on the food truck), there's not too much work to be done.
The new space, though not large, will allow the Panasewiczes to expand the menu a little and take some of the pressure off the shipping-container kitchen at Avanti. "It will still be a 100 percent gluten-free menu," Beckie adds.
The couple has made Denver a permanent home and has made "arepas" almost a household word in the city, but Beckie notes that it hasn't always been easy. "Igor is very proud of introducing Denver to arepas and Venezuelan food to Denver," she says.
If you've never had an arepa, you can try the sandwich-like corn-flour pockets at Avanti, since Quiero has no intention of leaving the food hall. And you also still have time to get a taste of Makan's excellent Malaysian specialties; the last day for the restaurant will be December 22.