I realized the other day that, apart from the moniker of my husband and trusty sidekick, Empanada Boy, empanadas have never actually been featured on this site. So when EB’s friend Foiegrasman suggested we meet up for a late dinner in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, I decided to remedy the situation with a visit Empanada Mama. As the name suggests, this is a restaurant with half of its menu devoted to dough-pocketed goodness— some more traditional than others. We met Foiegrasman and his boyfriend Veal Balls (an explanation of the name follows shortly) at the restaurant at 9:30 pm, but still had to wait about 35 minutes before we got a table for four. In the meantime, we drank $7 tinis, margaritas and glasses of vinho verde— all remarkably well-priced for New York City.
We were pretty hungry by the time we sat down and proceeded to order, yuca fries, plaintain chips and guacamole, veal and rice balls and loads of empanadas (around $2.50 to $3 each). Foiegrasman even threw in an arepa for good measure. The chips and fries were the first to arrive. As it turned out, we probably didn’t need to order both. Needless to say, we devoured them anyway. The plantain chips were thinly sliced lengthwise so as to show the shape and structure of the fruit’s profile. They were crispy, slightly sweet and slightly salty. We asked for the spicy guacamole, and it did have a kick (though not a very overpowering one). The yuca chips were like french fries, but with much more of their own innate flavor. Their exteriors were perfectly fried, and they proved pretty addictive.
After chowing down on the nontraditional chips, our meatballs arrived. These were made with veal and rice and were coated in a savory mushroom sauce. They had been recommended in other reviews I read, and our waitress singled them out, so I was expecting greatness. The meat balls were juicy and filled with flavor. (Veal Balls was so taken with them that he chose to christen himself after them—at least for the purpose of this blog.) I was less wild about the mushroom sauce because I found the flavor so strong it overwhelmed the meat. Still, the dish as a whole was unlike any I’ve tried before.
The final course was the pièce de résistance: the empanadas. In total, we tried seven different varieties with two made from corn flour (traditional Colombian style) and the rest from wheat flour. We didn’t much care for the corn flour ones, one filled with chorizo and the other shredded chicken, not because we didn’t like the shell but because the meat inside was dry and bland. The wheat flour empanadas didn’t have that problem. Among them were: the Brasil (ground beef, olives, sauteed onions, potatoes); the Reggaeton (Caribbean style roast pork, seasoned yellow rice and pigeon peas); chicken and broccoli teriyaki; the Viagra (seafood stew with shrimp, scallops and imitation crab); and the Cuban (slow roasted pork, ham, mozzarella, sofrito sauce). My hands-down favorite, and EB’s too, was the Reggaeton. It was the most flavorful and had the most interesting textural contrasts. It probably also reminded us of the jibaritos we used to eat in Chicago. My next favorite was probably the Cuban, which had a lot going on and was made decidedly more delicious by the creamy cheese. The spicy red sauce and the milder, creamier, green sauce on the table also livened up the breadiness of the crusts. The spinach and cheese arepa that Foiegrasman ordered was notably different from the ones I tried at Caracas Arepa Bar. Where those had an almost pita-like consistency, the corn-flour shell of this one was spongy and pleasantly chewy.
We spared no room in our stomachs for them, but Empanada Mama also has dessert empanadas, which are supposed to be tasty. Next time I want to treat my Empanada Boy to something sweet, I’ll know where to take him.
763 9th Ave. (at 51st St.)
New York, NY 10019