Dueling Dishes: Battle Empanada

Categories: Dueling Dishes
Dave Lieberman
Empanada isn't a very specific word in Spanish. It just means something enveloped in dough, something "em-breaded". It doesn't prescribe the filling, the shape or even the method of cookery. Beef Wellington would technically be an empanada, as would a deep-fried pig in a blanket.

Usually, though, when people talk about empanadas, they're talking about the Argentine snack of various fillings in a triangular dough which are fried (usually) or baked (sometimes), like turnovers.

This week's Dueling Dishes pits the triangular output of El Gaucho Market #2 in Anaheim against that of Empanada's Place in Costa Mesa.

Empanada's Place is the OC outpost of a storied old empanadería in Culver City. Our own Place sits in a plaza just across from Henry's, on Harbor just north of Baker. Empanadas are the star attraction and they sell eighteen kinds, all shaped differently so you can identify them: from the usual chicken and beef to unusual creations like empanadas árabes (stuffed with lemon-scented ground beef) and humitas (sweet corn and mozzarella).

Our order was one criolla (what Mexicans call picadillo, spiced beef with raisins), one cordobesa (beef with potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and olives), one pascualina (spinach with parmesan, mozzarella and white sauce), one broccoli (with parmesan and mozzarella, no white sauce) and one ricotta (with fresh mushrooms).

Dave Lieberman
The empanadas, which sell for $2.99 each or $29.99 a dozen, are large, averaging about 6-7 inches across, and deep-fried. The winner of the Costa Mesa lineup was undoubtedly the criolla: soft, cinnamony beef, and the raisins offered a nice hit of sweetness in the middle of a cinnamony beef.

The cordobesa was a little less pungently spiced but had the addition of olives. One problem was that the olives had slid down to one end, so when the empanada was split, one person got all the olives and the other had none (and went "wee, wee, wee" all the way home).

The ricotta was very soft and smooth, but one side had a concentration of mushrooms that overwhelmed the delicate taste of ricotta. It would have been better to leave the mushrooms out and use a pinch of nutmeg to set off the milky richness of the cheese.

The clunker was the pascualina. Overwhelmingly cheesy, and the spinach was bitter and slimy, which contrasted badly with the fried empanada shell. The broccoli had some of the same problem, but the large chunks of vegetable helped it along.

Empanada's Place has a sleeper hit on their hands with the alfajores they sell across the counter: butter cookies as light as air and with the perfect amount of dulce de leche in the middle. I have no idea how they manage to keep them so light and soft, but I wanted more right away.

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