“What is an empanada?”
This question lingered over Lisa and I like a thought bubble in a New Yorker cartoon. “I think it’s like a doughy packet,” I said. “Stuffed with stuff.” “Like an eggroll?” Lisa queried. “Yes, sort of like an eggroll.”
This was the talk on the way to Empanada Mama, just a few blocks away from where Lisa lives in Hell’s Kitchen:
On the flight to Paris, I read the Wednesday Food Section (like I usually do) and studied with interest this review by Peter Meehan because the place in question was so close to Lisa…
“EMPANADAS are many things to many people. They are a savory-sweet knife-and-fork food in Bolivia and a corn-flour-crusted snack in Venezuela. In Chile, empanadas are often stuffed with seafood, which would be an unlikely filling at an empanaderia in Argentina, the country most Americans associate them with. At Empanada Mama, a tender young shoot in the thicket of restaurants on Ninth Avenue in the 40’s and 50’s, they are something else still: empty canvases, ready to be rendered in a thousand new and fanciful ways.”
Using the article as a guide, Lisa and I plowed our way through the menu. The empanadas are all around $3 each so we ordered a bunch of those and one arepa. Here’s Lisa with the empanadas when they arrived:
Since she don’t eat no meat, Lisa’s were all veggie-friendly empanadas. Mine, in turn, were quite meaty. Here are the little bags mine came in:
As you can see, I ordered a meat one, a Polish one and then a chicken arepa:
As Meehan warns, this thing is huge: “an arepa is practically a full meal and an empanada is unequivocally a snack.” I liked the corny crustiness of the arepa and the chicken was fine and saucy, but I only ate half. I wanted to save room for my empanadas.
Lisa cut into her pizza empanada:
For my money, a pizza empanada teeters dangerously close to a pizza hotpocket. But Lisa was happy with it. “This is really good,” she said.
She was less enthused with her spinach and cheese empanada (also on her plate). “This tates funny,” she said.
I cut into my Polish empanada, a crazy idea: stuffed with sausage and kraut. In an empanada!
Everything here is executed extremely well, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was eating hot dogs and sauerkraut inside an eggroll.
I was much happier with my carne (beef) empanada: it was basic and delicious. Plus it was a perfect vehicle for the sauces they give you: cilantro sauce and hot sauce. Sometimes the simplest things are the best.
The empanada I was secretly craving the most was the one Lisa ordered last: the Elvis, stuffed with bananas and peanut butter. Lisa had a mixed reaction at first:
“The texture’s weird,” she said. “But I think I like it.”
I took a bite and loved it.
“I love it!” I informed her.
“Ya,” she said. “It is really good.”
And it is my theory that it tasted so good because it’s basically a dessert. But Lisa insisted that the peanut butter gave it meal-like credibility and that we should order a dessert empanada. I didn’t fight her on that one. We ordered a fig, caramel, cheese dessert empanada:
I liked everything about this except the cheese: it was a little too gooey and greasy, but the caramel and figs were awesome.
“I’m just eating the caramel and figs,” said Lisa. “And they’re great.”
Later in the night Lisa and I were back at her apartment with her roommate Aaron. Lisa suddenly announced that she really liked “Empanada Mama.”
“What’s an empanada?” asked Aaron.
We stared blankly back. After eating six of them, I’m still not sure we know.