Funky Venezuelan Small Plates From Miami Land in Brooklyn
Chef Francisco Anton based La Ñapa on his beloved Little Havana restaurant, Cardón y El Tirano.
Inside a previously shuttered bodega at the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Bergen Street in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, two brothers and their mother serve a lineup of no-frills Venezuelan food, including avocado arepas, seafood ceviche, and yucca balls teeming with goat cheese and guava. La Ñapa, which opened in May, is more than a funky small plates restaurant. It’s representative of the culture and cuisine chef-owner Francisco Anton and his brother, general manager Eliseo Anton, grew up on. About two decades since the brothers lived under the same roof in Isla Margarita, located just off the Venezuelan coast, La Ñapa has brought the Anton family back together, something none of them would have predicted.
“I left my home at 16 years old,” Anton says. “My mother was still in Venezuela at the time, and ultimately she and my brother left for Miami. For as long as I can remember, we’ve always been spread out. Not everyone has the ability to live their life near the people they care the most for. I never thought I would.”
As a teen, Anton fled Venezuela for Louisiana and later Orlando, where he graduated with a business degree from the University of Central Florida. He wanted to be a chef but figured he could learn how to cook on the fly, he says.
“When I was a teen, a chef told me the most useful thing I could do for myself was study business and accounting,” Anton says. “I knew I wanted to open restaurants one day, and I didn’t want to rely on someone else for it.”
After bouncing around kitchens in New York and Brooklyn, Anton took what he thought would be a quick trip to Miami to visit his family. It wasn’t long until he found a restaurant space in Little Havana, the largest Cuban neighborhood outside of the island nation, and opened Cardón y El Tirano, an eclectic Latin American restaurant where the menu includes foods from the world’s 20 Spanish-speaking countries, including Venezuela, Spain, and Argentina. It was there he employed his mother, Filomena, and brother.
“My mother’s side of the family is Italian,” he says. “We’ve always shown affection and love through food. With the restaurant, we were able to do that on a larger scale.”
Nearly five years later, Anton’s La Ñapa mimics the cuisine at the family’s flagship restaurant in Miami. The menu, like the restaurant itself, is small but packs a punch. Inside the 36-seater, customers gravitate toward Anton’s arepas, in which heaps of queso, cilantro, and garlic aioli are placed atop meat, chicken, or cheese. There are tacos, stuffed with slow braised pork with sautéed poblano and caramelized onions, or shrimp, sofrito, and cotija cheese. Then there’s Anton’s bright-green Sopa de Petit Pois, made with a coconut base with green peas and walnuts.
“There’s a noticeable Latin American flavor and spice to the food,” Anton says. “There’s a lot of Caribbean places in Brooklyn, but not a restaurant that serves Latin food like this. It will be a learning process with the customers though, adapting their tastes to different dishes. Nothing is necessarily set. I’m trying to work on being more open to creating new things, instead of sticking to what I know. It’s healthy to explore new things and new techniques.”
What will forever ben Anton’s favorite dish, served at Cardón y El Tirano and now La Ñapa, is his mother’s carrot cake.
“I’m not just saying this because she is my mother, but the cake is incredible,” he says. “She doesn’t work with recipes, so it’s always a handful of this, three cups of that. It’s super sweet and doesn’t crumble. At the restaurant, we heat it and top it with Nutella and pistachios. I guarantee you’ve never had carrot cake like this. I know it’s weird at a Latin restaurant, but trust me.”
Meanwhile, Anton’s brother has relocated up north while their mother remains in Miami, running Cardón y El Tirano on her own.
“I’m not going to lie and say running a business with your family isn’t hard,” Anton says. “Like anything in the world, there’s always issues. But the one thing you can’t make up is the trust we all have for each other. These are people I know and love. These are people that no matter how much time goes by, they will always be right by my side.”
La Ñapa. 656 Nostrand Ave., Brooklyn.