Jojoto: The Soul Of Venezuela On A Plate

In Mexico, it's "elote." In Peru, it's "choclo." But in Venezuela, corn on the cob definitively translates to "jojoto," and first-time restaurant owner Victor Figueroa settled on the unmistakably native word to embody the spirit of his new Branford eatery.

And to execute the dishes he remembers so fondly from his country, he called upon another Venezuelan, Neil Fuentes, who's known just as well around southern Connecticut for his musical prowess as he is for his culinary abilities. The "Singing Chef," who appears regularly on WTNH's "Connecticut Style" lifestyle program, also competed on Food Network's "Chopped" last year.

Jojoto (pronounced "ho-HO-to") opened in August in a diminutive but cozy building in Branford's Short Beach neighborhood. Fuentes and crew are turning out the cuisine he and Figueroa grew up eating: arepas (pockets of ground corn stuffed with meat, vegetables and cheese); cachapa (corn pancakes with cheese); and pabellon criollo, a simple but hearty dish of shredded beef, black beans, rice and plantains.

Figueroa says his goal is not just to attract Venezuelans in the region, but to introduce his food to Americans. He acknowledges the success of Norwalk's popular Valencia Luncheria, but says he hopes to provide his homeland fare to more of a Hartford-New Haven audience.

A former accountant with PricewaterhouseCoopers, Figueroa came to the United States 10 years ago and settled in Connecticut with his wife. Two years ago, his mother passed away and "it was like a strike for me," he said. "[I said,] I have to do something for my mom and for my country."

As a restaurant industry novice, he said he wanted to start small, but Fuentes convinced him "to go big," he said. They settled upon the space, which formerly housed Che Tango and more recently, Augie's, and redesigned the 46-seat room, maximizing an abundance of natural light and adding splashes of color with lime green and pale yellow walls. (The hues pay homage to corn on the cob, Figueroa says.)

Fuentes has divided the menu into two categories: the first being authentic Venezuelan street food like the arepas ($7 to $8), which are stuffed with braised short rib, sofrito-braised chicken, slow-roasted pulled pork or, in the Reina Pepiada preparation, chicken, potato, avocado and apple. Toston ($9) starts with garlic-seasoned, fried unripe plantains, which are loaded with coleslaw and shrimp in a spicy creamy sauce. Empanadas ($4 apiece) are filled with beef, chicken, rice and beans or cheese. Guacucos ($7) is a dish of clams, lime, shallots and corn in a shrimp fume, atop housemade pappardelle noodles.

The "Platos de Fuentes" section of the menu ($16 to $28) highlights traditional Venezuelan flavors in dishes with slight twists, as imagined by the chef. Gallinita rellena (crispy-skinned Cornish hen) stuffed with leek and sweet plantain is a huge seller, Figueroa says, as is the parrilla Venezolana, with a variety of grilled meats. A two-person dish of paella ($42) with shellfish, chicken and chorizo requires 45 minutes of cooking time – diners are encouraged to call ahead.

The Hamburguesa Venezolana ($16) is fully loaded with an 8-ounce beef patty, ham, cheese, avocado, egg, coleslaw and potato bits.

"It's just huge," said Fuentes of the burger, which comes with truffle parmesan fries. Featured desserts include a rich coconut custard cake (Fuentes' mother's recipe); a tres leches cake and churros.

Fuentes, who grew up on a farm, is passionate about scratch cooking – everything is made on site at Jojoto except the french fries, he said. That includes the fresh-baked bread for the burger and two appetizer-sized sandwiches. Beyond that, much of the menu is gluten-free, he said, since corn, plantains and rice make up the majority of the starches.

The scratch mentality extends to the bar, where liquors are house-infused and juices are fresh-squeezed. Flavored martinis ($9) feature passion fruit and jalapeno, lavender and lime, tamarind and a recent cocktail special of guanabana and rum. If they can't find the exotic fruit easily, they'll order the pulp, Fuentes said.

Figueroa and Fuentes say they're still polishing the restaurant, but expect to change the menu seasonally, adding heavier dishes for the fall and winter. They've started a Sunday brunch, and Fuentes would like to host monthly cooking classes. In the future, Jojoto may draw upon its employees' collective talent (several are professional singers, Fuentes said) and entertain its guests with musical performances.

For those experiencing this cuisine for the first time: "This is my food, this is what I grew up with. It's who I am. It's me," Fuentes said. "Everything you eat here –it's most likely something my mom prepared at some point…we're giving [diners] Venezuelans' soul on a plate. Our soul, our spirit."

>>Jojoto, 130 Shore Road, Branford, is open Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Monday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m; and Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Information: 203-208-4141,

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