Ardmore’s Autana Is a Pandemic Success Story Told in Arepas and Patacones 

At this Venezuelan spot hidden in Ardmore Station Cafe’s dining room, order as much as you can hold — plus extras for tomorrow.

Autana Venezuelan Ardmore

Pabellón, a traditional Venezuelan dish with rice, beans and shredded beef, at Autana in Ardmore / Photograph by Ted Nghiem

There is nothing about Autana that I don’t love. Let me say that right from the start. This entire review should be two sentences. Just five words:

Love this place.

Go now.

And if you trusted me, you’d go. You’d drive out to Ardmore. You’d park in the grotty little back lot off the main drag, where all the construction trucks are. You’d see the little sign that says “Autana Authentic Venezuelan Food” stuck in the window­ of the Ardmore Station Café (a perfectly serviceable neighborhood diner that does French toast and BLTs and turns out the lights by 2 p.m.) and go up the stairs. There, across from the Japanese market, you’d peek through the door (like I did) and see Levi Hernandez or maybe his wife, Maria-Elena, dashing­ around, assembling takeout orders or carrying plates to the tables set in the Ardmore Station Café’s dining room. You’d walk in, take a seat, order. And then you’d get it. You’d fall in love with the place, too.

Autana was born during the pandemic. Born because of the pandemic, really. Levi and Maria-Elena both lost their jobs during the worst of it. Levi was a chef (ex of Four Seasons in Philadelphia), and he saw this as an opportunity — a chance to make something of his own. So the Hernandezes pivoted, like we all did. They started running Autana as a ghost kitchen inside Ardmore Station,­ doing pop-ups and takeout, slowly expanding to a few tables at night, when the diner was closed, and then a few more. They brought their kids in to help. Made it a family business.



6 Station Road, Ardmore

CUISINE: Venezuelan


Order This: As much as you can hold, plus extras for tomorrow. Save room for a slice of the tres leches cake.

Now, it’s an actual restaurant. Not their own place, but certainly their own thing. A pandemic success story told in arepas and patacones. 

When you go, order everything. Order more than you can possibly eat, so there’ll be leftovers for the next day. The menu is short but deep — seven kinds of empanadas, a dozen arepas.

The cachapas are like crepes: sweet corn pancakes folded over beef and cheese, roast pork and cheese, cheese and cheese. Some days, there are pork ribs, and there’s always pabellón — shredded beef with a smoky spice served over white rice, with excellent soft black beans and sweet plantains on the side. There are tequeños — little thumbs of fresh cheese wrapped in delicate pastry dough and fried — dipped in a grass-green sauce that tastes like summer dusk and garlic and chili. Some come laced with guava or jalapeño. I like the plain ones best — I’m a fried-cheese purist. I could live on tequeños and fried sweet plantains caramelized in the pan. Maybe the occasional slice of Autana’s tres leches cake, which might be the best I’ve ever had, all milky and soft and dosed with cinnamon.

I can keep going. I could do this all day. The empanada shells are impossibly crisp, slightly sweet, perfectly filled with black beans and cheese or shredded­ meat. The arepas are grilled, folded over like a taco but faintly sweet and strange to eat until you realize you have to do a cheesesteak lean and head-tilt to make it work. There are a dozen kinds, but the reina pepiada arepa, the standard, is essentially a chicken salad, mayo-heavy and capped with a fat slice of avocado. 

The “Home Salad” at Autana / Photograph by Ted Nghiem

Mandocas are like the fried outsides of corn dogs, twisted like memorial ribbons and topped with cheese. Made with cornmeal, sweet plantain and sugarcane, they’re sweet and savory at the same time, crispy, hot from the oil, so good you can accidentally eat so many that you can’t eat anything else. I did. A rookie mistake.

The patacone is like a sandwich invented by someone forced to make a sandwich out of random ingredients grabbed blindly off the shelves. Plantain smashed flat and fried hard as bread, lettuce and tomato, chimichurri, potato chips, cheese, pulled pork or fish or shredded chicken, and avocado (if you ask, and you should). It’s delicious, gloppy, dripping and awesome. It will ruin your shirt if you try to pick it up, and you won’t care. The roast pork sandwich at the bottom of the menu? That’s good, too. But it seems almost staid in comparison, with its actual bread and traditional sandwich shape. It doesn’t have the wildness of the patacon. It feels like it should come with a tie and sensible shoes, and if you eat it after you try the patacon, you’ll inevitably wish you’d just gotten two patacones.

Tequeños at Autana / Photograph by Ted Nghiem

Look, Autana is everything a restaurant should be at this moment — confusing, earnest, strange, welcoming, risky, smart, and so, so delicious, all at the same time. It’s messy in the way that all of us are messy right now. The way all of us are fucked-up and struggling and still trying to find our way as we come staggering out of the shadow of the past two years. So if what I’m writing here is anything at all, it’s a straight-up love letter to Autana. To courage and weirdness and family and mandocas. 

It’s an ode to patacones and to never­ giving up. 

3 Stars — Come from anywhere in the region

Rating Key
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country


Published as “Dreaming of Plantain” in the May 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.