When yearning to break free from winter’s long, frigid embrace, a trip to Mango Café is just the ticket for those craving an exotic escape.

Mango Café is a sparkling gem shimmering like a beacon of hope on South Bend Avenue beckoning paradise hunters. Driving by, an explosion of color cuts through the melancholic haze that blankets South Bend in winter. Tiny but lively, there is nothing subtle about Mango Café’s building, which features a vivid mural depicting a picturesque Caribbean beach landscape.

Walking in, guests can almost hear the waves crashing on the shore…or maybe that’s the slush being kicked up by a passing car.

The inside is just as colorful and inviting as the outside. The sun-soaked yellow and tangerine orange walls lined with tropical greenery contain the tranquility of Mango Café’s paradisiacal atmosphere.

Mango Café is owned and operated by the Mendez family, who left Venezuela in 1999 seeking political refuge in the U.S. Since landing in South Bend, Mango Café has been a way for the Mendez family to stay connected to their roots and to share the unexplored cuisine of Venezuela with the community.

Each member of the Mendez family radiates a warmth that begins to thaw visitors from the inside out as soon as they walk through the door. Their sincerity and genuine hospitality makes people feel like they have walked right into their home — a home where a mesmerizing mosaic of Venezuelan flavors are brought to life.

Chef Guillermo Mendez is the architect of Mango Café’s recipes, which draw on his elders’ knowledge of native criollo cooking. Everything is made from scratch with fresh ingredients that shape a menu that can only be described as authentic Venezuelan home cooking.

Pabellón, the national dish of Venezuela, is Mango Café’s most popular plate among locals, which includes a strong following of Notre Dame students. Mango Café’s hearty helping of pabellón consists of succulent shreds of beef falling apart in its juices, a pillowy pile of white rice topped with a fried egg, and black beans sprinkled with melty Venezuelan white cheese — all accompanied by a few slices of sweet, caramelized plantains and two arepitas fritas.

Arepitas fritas are the bite-sized version of arepas —  traditional Venezuelan corn flour cakes that are chewy and tender and piled high with various combinations of meat, cheese, beans, eggs, vegetables, etc. No matter how they are filled, Mango Café’s arepas are always a good host to a unique momentum of flavors and taste sensations.

“The arepas and empanadas are very popular,” Guillermo says. “Arepas and empanadas are similar. The dough is the same. The difference is the empanadas. We stuff them first and then we fry them. The arepas we grill by themselves, then we open them and stuff them.”

The empanadas coming out of the kitchen at Mango Café look as if they could burst at the seam at any second. Whether oozing with melted cheese, juicy shredded chicken, or any other combination of simple ingredients packing complex flavors, the beauty of empanadas is all about discovering what is hidden within.

As is the case with Mango Café. While the outside is enough to invoke wonder in both locals and tourists, the real beauty is discovered within.

The magnificence of Mango Café is revealed in the friendliness of the Mendez family, in a cuisine stewed in culture, and in the hum of laid-back vibes harmonizing with muffled sizzling of skirt steak wafting out of the kitchen. When it all comes together, it allows guests to forget, if only for a moment, that they are at 1740 South Bend Ave., and relax a little further into their chair while entertaining dreams of a Caribbean vacation.

Photography Wes Jerdon/Westley Leon Studio