Four days. That’s how long Bae Latin Food functioned as a normal, pre-pandemic restaurant—the kind of spiffy enterprise its owners, childhood friends who grew up in the same apartment building in Venezuela, had always envisioned. Instagram photos from the March 13 grand opening show a full staff beaming in their crisp uniforms and customers crowding the counter. You see the two Hamilton County–based proprietors, Alberto Araujo and Michel Beauperthuy (whose third business partner, Luis Daniel Beauperthuy, lives in Portugal), pose proudly at Bae’s gleaming entrance, smiling like they’ve just won the Publishers Clearing House. It’s like flipping through a slideshow from a more innocent time, before COVID-19 and its restrictions forced restaurants across the country to pivot hard, scramble for federal aid, and make the excruciating decision to close their doors temporarily or forever. Some, like Bae, transformed almost overnight into a carryout model … and held their breath.
As with so many things right now, we don’t know if Bae’s young and nimble concept—its ability to flip a still-malleable business plan so quickly—will save it from the quarantine’s purifying wildfires. But this pan-Latin startup has a secret weapon in its neatly organized menu of sandwiches and bowls, all ergonomically designed for grabbing and going. One section features pepitos, stuffed Venezuelan sandwiches that wrap a pliable hoagie bun around meats sizzled on a diner-style flat top and melded in place with an impossible load of toppings. Fat burritos and flights of soft tacos bring together the carnivore’s dream team: shredded beef, pulled pork, grilled shrimp, crumbles of zesty chorizo, and chopped churrasco (Brazilian steakhouse–style skirt steak) combined and embellished with cheeses and an entire palette of Venezuelan sauces. Vegetarian and vegan options are built around equally decadent ingredients like sweet fried plantains that taste like starchy caramelized bananas and thick-cut yucca fries dosed with avocado and red beans.
Bae describes its brand as Nuevo Latin fast food, throwing a wide net around the flavors of Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, and Argentina but putting an emphasis on Venezuelan food and its trendy headliner: the arepa. If you have ever eaten one of these white-corn griddle cakes—served as big as a torta at Tu Casa Restaurant, delivered with an order of tequeños at Cumaco Arepa House, or handed down from the window of a taco truck, wonderfully warm and gloppy—you will understand why arepas emerged as a staple of cooking in Venezuela and an object of obsession everywhere else.
On my first visit to this fast-casual spot at the end of a shiny new strip center, I could hear another customer’s burger sizzling on the grill top a few feet behind the counter. The kitchen’s stainless-steal surface still had that just-installed glint. When I waffled over what to order, one of Bae’s employees darted from behind the register to talk me through the choices. “The burgers are great,” he said as he hovered over my table, tapping his finger down the paper menu. (Indeed, Venezuelan burgers are notoriously elaborate towers of flavors and textures, with toppings that range from alfalfa sprouts to fried eggs to potato sticks.) “But people also love our bowls,” he continued. “These tacos are excellent. And of course we have all of the arepas.”
This would be my last face-to-face conversation with a restaurant employee, my last meal in a commercial dining room, and the last time I filled my own cup with Sprite at a communal soda machine. I devoured a Cowboy arepa that day, its warm corn pocket filled with tender chopped churrasco and a mound of soft, smoky shredded Gouda. I was midway through an order of TacoLanos—four soft tortillas, each with a different meat filling of grilled shrimp, shredded beef, chopped chicken, and pork belly—when my phone pinged with a message from a fellow foodie. Had I heard? The governor just announced a statewide shutdown.
That’s the moment when life began to feel a little like the beginning of a young-adult dystopian novel. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Like everyone else, Bae suffered losses. It had to cut its staff down to just the two owners. But efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 also tapped the brakes on Bae’s long-term business plan. “We were so ambitious,” says co-owner Araujo. “We thought maybe in six or seven months we would start looking for investors in the Bae brand. In a year, we wanted to open another one, and then another one.” This all makes sense when you stand back and get a good look at the careful packaging in which Araujo and his partners wrapped their counter-service flagship. With its neutral walls, crisp red-and-white range, and molded-plastic chairs built not for comfort but rather for hunkering down over a basket of food, the interior is as formulaic as a Five Guys or a Chipotle. Perhaps a Punch Burger.
The menu takes the same tack, built around universally delicious, very adaptable ingredients. You can find more authentic food at almost any other South American restaurant in town, where the day’s selections are handwritten on sheets of poster board behind the cash register instead of blinking from a bank of mounted digital screens. Bae did not set out to woo the culture-hungry David Changs and Jonathan Golds of the culinary world. Instead, “our goal was to cook for American tastes,” says Araujo, who is as qualified as anyone to understand that market. In Venezuela, he started working for Hard Rock Café in the early 2000s, served as general manager at three of them. He went on to open one of the music-themed eateries in Peru, where he lived before moving to Indiana, by way of Florida, late last year. His Bae business partner, Michel Beauperthuy, spent 17 years running Tony Roma’s kitchens in Venezuela. Both men started at ground level, washing dishes and cleaning floors before working their way up the chain-restaurant ranks. As soon as they met back up in the States (Beauperthuy arriving a few years before Araujo), they started working toward their own version of fast-casual Americana.
Bae did not set out to woo the culture-hungry David Changs and Jonathan Golds of the culinary world.
On my second visit to Bae, I placed my order online the morning of, right down to a request for extra to-go squirts of every one of its sauces—from garlic to bacon to parsley to sweet corn. We pulled up in front of the business and sent a text inside, waving off the sales clerk from neighboring Payless Liquors who was lugging out curbside cases to idling cars: “Are you all waiting on the Bud Light?”
No. We were waiting on a steak pepito in a baguette filled with mixed greens, potato sticks, and parmesan cheese, laced with creamy Bae sauce; a densely seasoned burger bursting out of its paper skirt; an arepa barely containing its beefy filling; and a clamshell of crispy tostones to be dunked with abandon into a tiny cup of Venezuela’s famous pink sauce—a slurry of ketchup, mayo, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and garlic. We parked at the back of the big empty parking lot, with our napkin-littered dashboard facing Bae in the distance, imagining what it will look like, hopefully some day soon, with its “Open” sign aglow.
14580 River Rd., Carmel, 317-219-6205
Carryout schedule: Mon.–Sat. noon–9 p.m., Sun. noon–8 p.m.
Latin fast casual
Rice-and-bean bowls, sandwiches, burgers, and arepas
The TacoLanos, a four-piece sampler of meat-filled soft tacos, and the Venezuelan arepa. Cover everything in Bae’s five squirt-bottled sauces.