"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Friday, December 10, 2010

Casa de las Empanadas (and other empanadas) - November 24, 2010

Take out shop in Cordoba
Empanadas, you mean those greasy, grotesquely bright orange fried dumplings, sitting stale on some countertop and looking desolately unhealthy and unappetizing? Yes, I had seen them although I might have instinctively and rightly avoided them. When an empanada joint came into existence in the neighborhood, I watched it in disbelief, and when it went out of existence, I nodded in relief.

That was the pre-Argentina days.

Serendipity occurs because many "ifs" turned out negative. If the parilla place was open as it said it would on its doors (for whatever reasons, quite a few parilla places in Argentina always opened half hour later than advertised), I would have gone in and had some lomo there and then. Or had the other fancy restaurant with two menus - one for the traditional and the other with an alleged creativity, which was more realistically designed to capture the attention-deficit travelers - did not employ that overly gregarious waiter at the door, we might have gone in there instead.  But luck would have it, neither occurred and we were stranded and wandering around the plaza in the dusk with a growling stomach, with a sinking realization that we had no promising prospective in sight for dinner. That was bad news, a really bad news.  Finally, to tie us over until the parilla place with the mysterious opening hours opened for business, we stumbled into a small empanada shop, charmingly rustic with walls covered by graffiti left by assumingly (because most of them in Spanish) grateful and happy customers.  By fourth day in Argentina, I had at least educated myself that there were "baked" versions of empanadas beside the fried, and that was what I was having.  "Uno Don Coro and uno Cafayate, por favor," I said and stoically declined the signora's incredulous and slightly querulous question of "Nada mas? (Nothing more?)"  Apparently, for a joint that offered one dozen empanadas with a bottle of local wine for $48 Argentine pesos, ordering merely two empanadas was setting a rather unpleasant precedent. 

After a lengthy period in which much surreptitious peeking into the back kitchen took place, partially to confirm that my empanadas were indeed going to be al forno (baked) as opposed to fritto (fried) and more importantly to guage the time that it would further take for some food to enter into now extremely unhappy stomachs.  Under normal circumstances, the fact that the ladies in the back were rolling out the dough and folding in the stuffing to make empanadas and baking them should appeared promising.  Freshly made from scratch.  However, under an extremely dire condition, the sight of empanada making incurred a rather depressing resignation in our hearts. Therefore, when two literally steaming hot, slightly charred empanadas, one in a traditional crescent shape and the other in a surprising round Chinese bun shape, arrived, we both broke into a smile of gratitude. The smile, however, immediately turned into two arched eyebrows with a pair of protruding eyes upon contact with the empanadas. "What is this???" was my vaguely coherent thought in a chaotic midst of bursting heat from the liquid (burning my tongue) inside the empanadas and the simultaneously exploding flavors.  The round, bun-shaped empanada, Don Coro, was indeed similar to a Chinese soup dumpling because the burning juices just flowed into my mouth, my fingers and dripped down my chin.  The flavor was an unexpected (well, I could read the menu in Spanish, but) mixture of blue cheese, parmeggiano, sauteed onions, goat cheese and some other ingenious selection of ingredients that just melted into a wonderfully complex harmony in the mouth.  The other empanada, Cafayate had corn, meat, sauteed onions and cheese (the signora there really loved her sauteed onions); the corn was crunchy and the flavor was mild yet satisfying in the deepest sense.  These two sealed the deal for the night.  We happily abandoned our plan for parilla and proceeded to order a dozen more empanadas from the inscrutable signora, who, however, seemed to have expected our additional orders as she cocked her large square head to take our orders.

Turco (Blue cheese, tomato, onions):  The addition of freshly chopped tomato enlivened and lightened the blue cheese; the juices from the tomatoes combined with the melted blue cheese produced a mighty force not to be taken lightly.  An unusual combination, tomato and blue cheese, but what a delight.

Saltana (Spicy meat): Ground beef mixed in with spices and potatoes was the hearty one of the dozen; the meat was similar to taco meat, but the use of potatoes was a nice touch which provided texture and variation. Meat and potatoes have proved itself once again.

Arabe (lamb, tomato, onion):  I think it was ground lamb with tomatoes and onions with spices. The use of lamb was interesting, which worked well against the tomatoes and onions to produce the exotic Arabe.

Black olives, onions, cheese:  I forgot the name for this one, but this was my third favorite. While the combination was rather orthodox, the flavor was just right. The reason the combination is orthodox is because it is fail-proof, tried and tested and because it is delicious whether it is pizza or empanada.

Green olives, salami, onions:  Similar to the one above you would think?  But no, no, no. The addition of salami changed the whole landscape and gave it a sturdier and robust flavor.  I preferred the one above, but this was by no means mediocre, in fact, far from it.

Corn, basil, cheese:  I liked this one for its simplicity; the corn was just so fresh and so crunchy. The basil added to the sweetness of the corn. And with cheese, who can complain?

Casa de las Empanadas Address, Mitre 24, Cafayate, Argentina
Phone: (03838) 454-111

I lost my camera half way through the trip, so there are regrettably no pictures. The fact that I was invited back to watch the women make the empanadas should be a testament of my gratitude and satisfaction, which were successfully communicated to the signora by my "oooohhhh" and "aaaahhhh", overcoming my Spanish 101.  Furthermore, the fact that we went back the next day for lunch, despite our tight schedule of leaving Cafayate with a seriously long drive ahead, should be another testament of how incredibly life-changing the empanadas were.

Not as good as Casa de las Empanadas, but here are some pictures of the subsequent empanadas for your amusement...

A takeout joint in Cordoba:  This store differentiates their empanadas by shapes (also the picture on top).

An empanada shop on our way to a wonderful Spanish dinner:  This shop does by branding...see the letters on the side?

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