Thursday, September 22, 2011

Empanada Mama is the Latin Mother You Wish You Had

Courtesy of Empanada Mama
Nestled in the bustling Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan, close enough to the oft obnoxious Times Square tourism to steer clear, is an inconspicuous gem that could easily be taken for kitschy fast-food mediocrity. With a misleading name of  Empanada Mama, this narrow vibrantly colored restaurant does not just serve up these Latin-American empanada treats with authentic expertise and flavor.  While they do have a lengthy list of wheat or corn-based pastries stuffed with over 35 different filling combinations ($2.25-3 each), they also offer a refreshing variety of tasting tapas, delicious arepas (white corn patties stuffed and bound with more cheesy goodness), homemade soups, thoughtful salads, and entree specials like arroz con pollo ($11.95) and palomilla steak ($15.75, the most you will pay for a single dish). And surprisingly, they do it all well. No wonder they are now open 24 hours (and always packed) and are expanding with another location in Greenwich Village soon.

My "Tequila Mojito"

Since I always try to sample the breadth of a menu, I shamelessly ordered from every section - and did not leave out dessert! Everything I tasted was delightful and the service was most helpful, in spite of the boisterous ambiance. My "tequila mojito" was created at my request with fresh lime juice and tequila subbing for the rum. I have now decided that this is the only way to have a mojito. Don't worry, it will catch on.


Plantain Chips, Guacamole, Tostones


A fresh start to a spread that began with perfectly crunchy mariquitas (plantain chips) and tostones that had more of a chew than they should, but was masqueraded beautifully with globs of insatiable guacamole ($6.95). The tapas-sized homemade cassava  ($4.95) was mashed yucca that was unexpectedly fried and stuffed with ground beef, a la croquette. It would have been memorable had the yucca flavor been detectable. Being the Cuban that I am, I had to try the "Cubana" arepa ($5.95) layered with authentically sofrito-seasoned shredded pork (a dead ringer for ropa vieja on the tongue), black beans and mozzarella cheese. It would have made my people proud.

Cassava "Croquette"


Arepa Cubana


And since pork is my meat of choice, I also went for the fat pork tamal entree ($8.45) kept warm and toasty in a banana leaf wrap. The steamed corn meal was supple and not mealy (a frequent misstep) and the pork shreds were moist and well-seasoned.

Pork Tamal



Pork Tamal unleafed


The simple but sophisticated watermelon salad ($9.95) surprised me with its size and the gorgeous blending of the juicy fresh fruit chunks with salty feta and Kalamata olives, biting red onion slices, and herbaceous mint leaves. Certainly not synonymous with a 24-hour joint.


Watermelon Salad


When it came to the empanada order moment of truth, it was impossible to choose, as every option seemed like the right one. This can be seen as an encouraging omen, or defeating indecision. I opted for the former perspective and whimsically spewed out standouts. I mean, how could I not order the "Viagara"? This baby turned out to be the most creative and tasty of the bunch, filled with "mama's seafood stew" which boasts shrimp, scallops, and crab meat in a luxurious consomme. Let me tell you, mama does know best. Casually served in individual paper bags stamped with their lettered identity, I also chomped on the chorizo (ground pork sausage), spinach pie (with feta), pernil (slow-roasted pork, need I say more?), and shredded chicken (with red peppers). All were different flavor profiles yet were equally satisfying, standing strong in their own pastry skin.

Pernil Empanada


Empanadas (bottom L clockwise): Spinach Pie, Chorizo, Chicken, Viagara


And just when I thought I could push my belly no further, the server insisted on a truly decadent sundae-esque dessert empanada. Just fill it with bananas and chocolate and douse it generously with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and whipped cream, and the savory suddenly becomes sweet. And how suddenly it disappeared. Ah, the versatility of fried dough.


Banana & Chocolate Empanada "Sundae"

With their fusion of South American cuisine, Empanada Mama serves standout empanadas, but the unmistakable voice of other Latin staples is equally audible.