In 2006, I was fortunate enough to study abroad in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Between Spanish classes and group excursions, I found myself filling the hours lying on the beach, eating and drinking wine. Not one of these things has left my mind and the craving to go back to this magical place filled with jamon de queso, Malbec, and sunshine has never subsided. But of all the memories that haunt me, it's the empanadas that I miss the most.
Around the corner from the hotel, a small deli-like shop served an array of tasty treats. I loved stopping in on the way to beach. Towel in hand and a small paper bag filled with beef or chicken empanadas, swimming, eating and napping was the perfect way to spend the siesta hours.
Now, in the throws of winter in New York, I crave that sunshine and bit of warmth from this pocketed treat. Hence, empanada round-up begins.
A new empanada joint in the city, Empanada Joe's opened their first store about two months ago. Though the Argentinean chef claims to use all natural ingredients, you wouldn't guess this by the taste. Each of the 11 empanada flavors costs $2.98, but there are meal deals. In order to keep the empanada hunt simple, I mostly stuck to the basic ingredients found in the Argentinean dish: chicken, tuna, beef, or pork, and no cheese. So at Empanada Joe's I tasted the Argentine beef, and rojo pulled pork.
While the beef was tasty, the shell proved too flaky, and it’s buttery-ness overpowered the meat innards. The pork was better, stuffed full of shredded meat, making it a hardier meal, though the meat was a little dry, and lacked the classic spices found in my beloved empanadas in Mar del Plata.
Established in 1975, Ruben’s Empanadas claims to be the first commercial specialty shop in New York to focus on the hand-held pastry. The dozen-plus flavors (from $3.75 to $4.75 each) get pumped into thick wheat crusts. The choice was hard but in lieu of trying to stick to the Argentinean style, I sampled the classic tuna and Argentine sausage. Despite the over abundance of calzone-like bread, both the fillings came out delicious.
The sausage was spicy and moist, completely satisfying in the meat category. The tuna also boasted a hearty flavor and the combination of onions, hard-boiled egg, pimentos and capers, made it resemble the empanadas of my memory. However, because the crust was so thick, the flavor of the meat didn’t soak into the inner part of the bread, the way a traditional Argentinean empanada does.
122 1st Avenue (b/n St. Marks and 7th Street; map) 212-979-0172
At Luz in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood, empanadas are an appetizer. The Dos Empanadas, $10 for an order, feature two kinds: a sun-shaped empanada filled with spinach, cranberries, and pine nuts, with an outside garnish of sun-dried tomatoes, and another in a classic half-moon shape made with Manchego cheese, goat cheese, and thyme.
The latter tasted like a perfectly toasted cheese sandwich, minus the melty factor. The spinach was also flavorful and yummy, though in the end, not something I will crave in the future. While both empanadas lack the common pork or beef of traditional empanadas, they were still savory and the spices, well-balanced.
The Colombian-inspired Empanada Mama was the only place I visited that offered both fried and baked, as well as corn and wheat empanadas. The dozens of choices range from $2.50 to $2.75. Beyond the more traditional flavors, some options would never be found in Argentina, or anywhere in South America for that matter—cheeseburger, Polish sausage, and one called “Viagra,” which is made with seafood.
With restraint, I stuck to my goal and ordered shredded chicken with a baked corn flour shell and a shredded beef in a fried wheat flour casing. Even though the beef one was fried, it didn’t taste oily like many other fried empanadas. It remained flaky, and absorbed the marinated beef's spices. The chicken one was enhanced by the sweet corn casing that brought out the flavor of the chicken, peas, and carrots, which filled the pastry to the maximum. Both had a nice balance of spice and texture, though I found the chicken a bit dry. Quick fix: dunking it into the complementary spicy jalapeño sauce.
With a name like Buenos Aires, you'd hope this would be the best place to get an accurate Argentinean snack—and it was. Like Luz, you order them as an appetizer for $5.95 and choose two among four options (vegetarians rejoice, you're well taken care of here). When they came out, the empanadas were crispy but not buttery. The dough was thick, but not overpowering, and they were baked. Ingredients included hard-boiled egg, olive, and a little onion. That being said, the two ordered, spicy beef and chicken, didn’t taste very distinct from each other, meat-wise. But both tasted good and triggered the most nostalgia for me.
Of course, while you are there, make sure to order one of their prime steaks. Beef is another staple from this gaucho country.
Street Cart Empanadas
Empanadas are sold on the streets of Argentina, and apparently, in some parts of New York too. I couldn't find the Williamsburg empanada man who sells his late-night munchie at bars or the popular woman in Park Slope on 5th Avenue. But, I did sample Argentinean-style empanadas from a street cart across from the MoMA, along with their not-so-Spanish-influenced crepes.
Only three flavors are offered: chicken, beef and veggie ($2 each). The veggie’s crust is bland, much like the spinach cheese mess inside, which tastes like a microwavable spinach pie dish that used to haunt the back of the freezer. Yet the beef was surprisingly good: hearty, rich in flavor, and not too oily. The chicken was almost exactly the same. Both had whole green olives, bits of egg, and onion mixed in with the meat. The bread around the filling wasn't great, but at least I didn't feel the need to chuck dough pieces at pigeons.
The problem with eating food from a street cart is usually heat, and these empanadas could have been hotter. To be fair, it would have been sunny and warm (not cold and cloudy) in Mar del Plata. All in all, the street meat pockets were a decent tribute to Argentinean empanadas.
Though I never found the perfect empanada there were some winners. The best thing about these succulent hand-held meals is their diversity, something New York proves to offer.
Empanada Street Cart
Usually across from the Museum of Modern Art 11 West 53 Street (b/n Fifth and Sixth Avenues; map)