The Original Hot Pockets: Empanadas

The Latin American pastries are catching on in Orange County, from bakeries to food trucks

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With fillings that can be as molten as fondue or as hearty as your favorite stew, empanadas are turning up in bakeries, restaurants, and even on food trucks in O.C. These baked or fried Latin American turnovers can be eaten alone or with chimichurri, a garlicky parsley-based sauce. To identify the fillings, bakers flute the edges with patterns that range from a fork tine crimp to fancy braiding. Some shops put a glossary on top of their boxes.

1. Empanada Man Pizzeria
Equal parts pizza guy and empanada purveyor, Argentina-born Omar Bizaro holds court with 14 varieties of coin-purse-sized empanadas. Our favorite contains a sweet and savory mixture of chicken, beef, green olives, raisins, hard-boiled egg, potatoes, and peas. A traditionalist who grew up on his mom’s Mendozan-style beef empanadas, Bizaro gives his Mexican wife credit for helping him develop chorizo and egg, and chile verde fillings. $1.89 each; $18 a dozen. Discounts on orders of 60 or more. 20761 Lake Forest Drive, Lake Forest, 949-855-9257,empanadaman.com.

2. Del Tomate
After attending culinary school in Buenos Aires and owning a bakery and a specialty sandwich shop in Argentina, Susana and Guillermo Giacobbe spent seven years in the pastry department at the Montage Laguna Beach, and four years cooking at The St. Regis Monarch Beach, respectively. Their 6-month-old Argentine-Italian restaurant is a study in labor intensity. We love the made-from-scratch pastas and sauces and the small but delicious assortment of empanadas. The house-made dough is elegant and light. Of the five varieties, we like the eggplant best. Giacobbe sautés the nightshade vegetable to velvety smoothness. $1.60 each. 137 W. First St., Tustin, 714-731-1738, del-tomate.com.

3. La Rancherita
For 25 years, Nancy and Braulio Troncoso’s bakery has turned out fat, burnished, football-shaped salteñas, as Bolivian empanadas are known, loaded with juicy shredded chicken and ground beef shimmering with subtle heat. Requisite sliced hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, raisins, and peas round out the flavors. They brought the recipe from their native La Paz, where Braulio’s parents were bakers. In true Bolivian style, the dough is slightly sweet. Caution: Extreme juiciness means you’ll need to eat the steaming stew with a spoon. $2.50 each, or 100 for $125. 2709 Westminster Ave., Santa Ana, 714-554-7265.

4. Empanada’s Place
Meal-sized empanadas are served at this restaurant outfitted with lace tablecloths and a wooden counter to mimic the small-town cafés of Argentina. Norma Gil and her four sons opened the first Empanada’s Place in Culver City in 1985, and this one four years ago. Eight of the 18 varieties are vegetarian. The pascualina packed with spinach and cheese smells of white pepper and nutmeg, and the triangular arabe packs lean ground beef marinated in lemon juice, tomatoes, onions, and spices. $3 each, $30 a dozen, or $20 for a dozen for cocktail-sized. 3011 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, 714-825-0100, empanadasplace.com.

5. Chimichurri
Guatemala native Otto Bade is at the helm of this shoebox-sized restaurant that specializes in Argentine and Mexican food. The crisp, greaseless pastry of his ham-and-cheese empanada is piping-hot and stuffed with Monterey jack, flecks of ham, and green onion, while the chicken variety is rife with bell pepper and onion. Bright-green chimichurri sauce, shot through with raw garlic, is punched up with pungent vinegar and abundant chopped parsley. $1.75 each, $21 a dozen ($18 a dozen on Fridays). Cash only. 306 West Fourth St., Santa Ana, 714-480-0516.

6. El Gaucho Meat Market
Carlos Patti is the charming Uruguayan owner of this butcher shop, bakery, and restaurant, and its sister restaurant and grocery Puerto Madero. Both cater to a largely Argentine crowd that comes for the empanadas and stays for the soccer. When Uruguay secured its 15th Copa América this summer, it gave Patti bragging rights with his Argentinean friends. Patti was inspired by an old Spanish recipe for the rich tuna empanada that includes olives, onion, and bell pepper. Empanadas are $1.50 each, $15 a dozen, or $14 a dozen for the cocktail-sized copetines. Cayenne-laced chimichurri is $6 a jar, and Patti stocks an exceptional selection of malbecs from the Mendoza region. 847 S. State College Blvd., Anaheim, 714-776-6400.

7. Piaggio On Wheels
Empanadas filled with tender chicken, green onion, mild paprika, and smoky ground red pepper have been at the heart of Coli Piaggio’s restaurants from Brazil to Brea for the last 30 years. He remembers making 500 at a time in an outdoor brick oven in Santiago del Estero, Argentina. Now, he mans his food truck with his wife and two cooks. His caprese empanada, developed with the vegetarian in mind, is our fave: Juicy tomatoes, fragrant basil, and fresh mozzarella ooze from a crisp fried crust. Two for $5. 949-350-6557, piaggioonwheels.com.

photography by Carly Hebert

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Orange Coast magazine.

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