Ellana’s Kitchen & More in Newton Centre serves the kind of dishes someone might just remember for the rest of his or her life.
Whether it’s the empanadas or arepas at Ellana’s, every bite is a medley of flavors. Springy salsa balances crispy corn flour, and sweet plantains meet savory shreds of beef. The restaurant serves some of the best food out there, and it has the ratings to back it up.
In August, Yelp ranked Ellana’s as the second-best place in North America to get an arepa. Restaurants in California and Illinois dominated the list, yet the restaurant, Massachusetts’ only entry on the list, ranked second.
But behind Ellana’s tasty food and compassionate service, there is no one named Ellana. The name comes from a combination of the endings of the names of the two co-owners, Isabel Aoun and her husband Miguel Contessi, and their two daughters, according to the restaurant’s website.
Aoun said even through college, she always liked to cook. Aoun and her husband emigrated from Venezuela more than 20 years ago, and then after their kids grew older, they decided they wanted to do something new.
“The idea was spontaneously like, ‘Let’s do something like open a restaurant and make food, because that’s what I like to do,’” Aoun said.
Ellana’s, which opened in 2017, is about to turn five years old in May.
Many customers ask why the restaurant serves both Mediterranean and Venezuelan food, according to Aoun. The couple is from Venezuela, but Aoun’s parents are Lebanese and Contessi’s parents are Italian.
“I grew up with that food, both foods—Venezuelan and Mediterranean—and when we were thinking and doing something, we thought that would be kind of cool to have both cuisines together in a place,” Aoun said. “People are amazed with that.”
For the first two years of business, Aoun found that the restaurant was many people’s first introduction to Venezuelan food. But after time, that changed.
“Now, it’s more like people know more about [Venezuelan] food, especially the arepa, the bread that we make,” she said.Those arepas earn their praise.
An arepa is a cornmeal-based unleavened dough. At Ellana’s, customers can get arepas sandwiched around everything from black beans and queso blanco to chicken salad and avocado.
The restaurant’s cook said the arepa pabellón, stuffed with black beans, queso blanco, sweet plantains, and shredded beef or chicken, is really popular.
The arepas arrive straight from the grill, steaming hot in tin foil pouches. The cook said the best way to eat them is right out of the foil.
The dough is fluffy while retaining just the right amount of crispiness from the flattop. The cheese melts into the beans, and the tender meat draws moisture from plantains, which balances the savory flavors. The mild or hot salsa served on the side adds a fresh, acidic punch to each bite.
At Ellana’s, just one arepa—all variations priced under $9—is enough to fill a stomach. The empanadas, almost the size of a palm, are also filling.
The chicken empanada is generously stuffed. With every bite, the crispy outer layer formed by the fried cornmeal makes way for a soft, flavor-packed filling. The chicken has the perfect amount of seasoning.
The restaurant serves four other types of empanadas—beef, cheese, whitefish, and domino, or bean and cheese. All the empanadas and arepas on the menu are gluten free.
The restaurant also serves a variety of other Venezuelan and Mediterranean dishes. Aoun’s favorite is the cachapa.
“Cachapa is like a pancake made out of corn,” she said. “And then we fresh, hand-make white cheese.”
On the Mediterranean side of the menu, Ellana’s serves pita wraps, falafel, and chicken shawarma. Those items contrast with the Venezuelan ones on the bright chalkboard menu plastered above the register.
The interior of Ellana’s feels comfortable. It is set up like a deli, with a chilled display case displaying menu items and a ’90s-style register positioned adjacent to the case. The grill sits behind the display box, letting customers smell their food getting cooked. They can sit at a brightly lit hightop against the street-facing window or tables scattered across the cozy dining room.
Aoun said the pandemic hit Ellana’s very hard. Support from the City of Newton helped the restaurant persevere, she said.
“[The city] ordered food for the hospitals and for people in need,” Aoun said. “So that way, they … help the people and help the small businesses [and] restaurants. That was a big help for us.”
Ellana’s serves breakfast and lunch. The restaurant is open at 19 Pelham Street Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Images by Victor Stefanescu / Heights Editor