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A lesson in Argentine empanadas

By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review 

In countries such as Chile, Peru, Belize and the Philippines, empanadas are seen as quaint appetizers or hand-held noshes sold at street festivals. In Argentina, they qualify as a meal. And a majority of them are filled with beef.

(l to r) Owners Dan Housinga and Matias Rigali (Courtesy of Empanada Kitchen)

“Argentinians are obsessed with empanadas,” said Matias Rigali, a Buenos Aires transplant who began selling the savory-filled pastries at local farmers markets before opening Empanada Kitchen in February along the trolley tracks on C Street.

His business partner, Dan Housinga, is from Minnesota. He was so impressed by the straightforwardness of the product while marketing organic smoothies at farmers markets that he jumped ship to team up with Rigali.

Aside from a seasonal, pre-made salad, their menu is agreeably dominated by empanadas encasing everything from beef and lamb to chicken, ham, vegetables and eggs. There are about 10 options on any given day. Unlike their fried counterparts in other countries, these are a little bigger and freshly baked to golden-tanned finishes.

A juicy filling of ground beef, onions and bell peppers (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Rigali upholds the traditional art forms of Argentine empanadas, adhering to the shapes and crimps designated to their various fillings.

Beef empanadas, for example, are half-moons with braided-rope seals. Those filled with ham and mozzarella are round with raised outlines, while braised leg of lamb finds its home in frilly, boat-shaped casings flaunting dark, well-done peaks.

Educating customers on Argentine empanadas and their accompanying chimichurri sauce is an important and challenging part of the business, Housinga said. In summary, the answers to some of the questions he and Rigali commonly field are explained as such:

What exactly are empanadas? They are baked, folded dough sheets, similar to puff pastry, and filled with different combinations of meats, cheeses and vegetables.

Are they spicy? No, except for the Italian sausage empanada. Argentinian food generally isn’t spicy.

Are they machine-made? Not these. Only the ones you see in a grocery store freezer cases probably are.

(l to r) A trio of empanadas: ground beef, ham and an exotic sloppy Joe recipe
cheese, and spicy sausage (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

What is chimichurri sauce? It’s a simple mixture of parsley, oregano, garlic, olive oil, vinegar and non-spicy chili flakes. Argentinians use it on bread and beef, and typically not on empanadas. But given the American penchant for dipping sauces, it’s given out freely with your order.

A trio of empanadas from this industrious kitchen are reasonably priced at $9.50. Otherwise they’re $3.50 apiece. My vegetarian friend and I each ordered three and came away pleasantly full.

He loved the earthiness of the mushroom and goat cheese empanada, while the “caprese” offered the classic pairing of mozzarella and ripe tomatoes, although it fell a little short on the requisite basil.

His third empanada, the ratatouille, offered a rustic medley of roasted bell peppers, eggplant, onions, zucchini, tomatoes and garlic. In the absence of cheese, it nonetheless turned out to be a winner.

I was equally smitten with my choices: ham and cheese; beef; and spicy Italian sausage, which was the seasonal special that Rigali said is about to become a permanent offering. It very well should, given how beautifully the crumbled sausage and fragrant pesto inside engaged with the flaky pastry casing. And, it’s the only choice in the lineup that provides a bit of tongue burn.

In addition, I took home a lamb empanada, which offered all the goodness of a lamb entree from an upscale restaurant, given that it’s braised in red wine, rosemary, carrots and onions.

The ham and cheese empanada featured a commingling of lean ham and buttery tasting mozzarella. Though basic, it offered the finesse flavor of a savory French pastry.

Onions, bell peppers and light seasonings team up with ground beef in the most traditional of Argentine empanadas. A top seller, it was juicy and delightful — kind of like an exotic sloppy Joe recipe captured inside pastry crust instead of a hamburger roll.

Other fillings include chicken thigh meat sautéed in a Spanish-style medley of tomatoes, garlic and herbs (sofrito); sweet corn and basil with bechamel sauce; and bacon and egg, which is available only in the morning or by special request if you “talk to the man behind the counter,” as the menu humorously advises.

Empanada Kitchen is off to a solid start, thanks in part to initially establishing itself at farmers markets and retaining its spot at the La Jolla Open Aire Market on Sundays.

“I never tried to appeal only to the Argentine population in San Diego because it’s a very small community. We wanted to appeal to as many people as possible, and our customers today are very diverse,” Rigali said.

— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at fsabatini@san.rr.com.

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