Restaurant review: El Arepazo family's newest eatery is a terrific Brewery District addition

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

The T-shirt was mocking me. "Got Patacon?" it taunted from the back of an otherwise friendly server.

No, I didn't have a patacon. Why? Because the Columbus-bred El Arepazo mini-chain's famously craveable Venezuelan-style patacon "sandwich" (think plantain-based tostada) is only available for lunch at Arepazo Tapas Bar Grille in the Brewery District, where I'd come for dinner. I didn't complain, though, because this almost two-month-old, South American and Spanish food specialist is a terrific new restaurant.

The appeal of the large and handsome-not-fancy place, where upbeat Latin tunes play, begins with a versatile setting. In its wood-and-brick confines, sedate earth tones confront jarringly colorful artworks whose pre-Columbian influences are given a post-modern spin. Multiple spaces offer roomy booths, two-tops, banquettes, long tables, a white-tiled "cafe" area, and a patio connected to the lively bar through huge glass doors.

That bar is the site for one of the most interesting happy hours in town. Settle in then (4:30-6:30 p.m., M-F), and beers will be discounted to $3.50 (e.g. CBC IPA, Stella Artois, Pacifico), and several refreshing cocktails awash in fresh lime juice will cost $5 instead of the usual $8 (e.g. a tart and basil-scented Cuca Fresca, an excellent Classic Caipirinha, and a Classic Mojito that'll make you forget this drink is a cliché).

A few tapas receive $2 happy hour price-slashings, making the following recommended crowd-pleasing noshes all $5: Papa Criolla - ping pong-sized roasted whole "Colombian yellow" potatoes with gentle spice dustings, uncommonly creamy textures and a potent garlic dipping sauce; Tostones con Hogao - "meaty"-yet-crispy fried plantain chips served with a chunky and stewy tomato, garlic and onion sauce; Champinones Rellenos - irresistible broiled mushroom caps stuffed with Spanish chorizo and manchego cheese.

Another top tapa is Arepazo's Calabacines ($10). Recalling Basi Italia's iconic Zucchini Pronto - only baptized in lime juice - it's a pretty plate of shaved squash and asiago cheese lent ballast from deeply roasted almonds.

Ceviches ($11) are prominent here, like the wonderful and colorful-as-confetti Ohio Ceviche. Sizeable dices of walleye receive sweet, spicy, acidic and dynamic accents from chopped peaches, jalapeno, mint, scallion and a citrus bath.

Raw ruby fish cubes are adorned by creamy guacamole, jicama slaw and Arepazo's almost-famous (mayo-based) cilantro hot sauce in the Ahi Tuna Tartare Tacos, another all-star starter here. The good-deal biggies (3 for $13) are housed in brittle corn tortillas.

Moving onto Arepazo's less visually alluring Platos Grandes (entrees), I encountered a few bumps - but plenty of palate happiness. For instance, though its pleasantly salty and soupy Peruvian beans were cool, the all-brown Mojo Chicken ($13; with fried ripe plantains, grilled, tender breast meat and a barbecue-type sauce) was soulfully homey and satisfying.

And although the meat was far-from-prime, Arepazo's also monotonously brown Steak Mofongo ($13) delivered want-them-again, bold flavors. Sauteed beef chunks topped by cilantro plus long-cooked tomatoes and onions were treated to a soy sauce-forward gravy. Anchoring the plate is mofongo - addictive, super-garlicky smashed plantains, and the starchy South American answer to lumpy mashers.

Named after a kind of light opera, Zarzuela is the Spanish answer to bouillabaisse-type fish stews. At $18, it's Arepazo's priciest menu item. While I enjoyed the zesty and wine-spiked, tomato-and-oil-married broth in my bowl of smallish shrimp, little mussels, clams and chopped scallops, it was burdened with occasional grains of shellfish grit.

To finish on a literally short and sweet note, order the squat Tres Leches dessert ($6). Arepazo's (condensed, evaporated and whole) three-milk-soaked cake is a cinnamon-sprinkled, dense, occasionally eggy and sticky version of the classic. Eating it - and recalling the many other plusses of this fun new place - helped me forget how unkind certain T-shirts can be.

Arepazo Tapas Bar Grille

515 S. High St., Brewery District