When I was in college I used to teach tennis lessons and some of my students were siblings. It was always amusing to watch them because they were exactly the same in every way: mannerisms, sayings, attitude, and physical features. And yet they would always contest, “No way, I my brother is TOTALLY different from me!”
In a way they’re both right and wrong.
Right because there are actually distinct differences between them, they may be more shy than their brother, for example. But wrong because against the backdrop of all other kinds of people, no one would have a hard time pairing the two of them together. You can’t pick out the differences until you really get to know both of them.
This combination of uniqueness and similarity is how I felt about Empanada’s Place, a small Argentinian restaurant in LA.
We’re all familiar with pizzerias or burger joints, restaurants built around variations on a single dish. I love specialty restaurants like these because by having different versions of the same basic idea, you get to see a finer granularity and subtlety of food. Comparing the taste of a burger with blue cheese and caramelized onions with another that has jalapeños and pineapple deepens your understanding of what a burger really is (and what is just the topping or style). Defining these is inherently a very human concept, something that a culture has to come to consensus on.
This is one reason why I get so excited about restaurants like Empanada’s Place: the opportunity to find greater depth in a single dish that I may have only had limited exposure to. Many restaurants have empanadas, even if they’re not necessarily specializing in South American cuisine. However you never get much variation, like if you went your whole life and only had NY style cheese pizza. But Empanada’s Place delivers on its name: the restaurant has almost 20 different kinds of empanadas to try. And priced at less than $3, the theme encourages you to mix and match to create your own tasting menu.
Like many other great finds, you’d miss Empanada’s place if you weren’t looking for it. We looked it up on Yelp after flying into LAX; it’s hiding on an unknown street in LA next to a gas station and a run down theater. The restaurant is decorated with a delicate Argentinian feeling to it. Energetic red and white colors dominated the tables with Argentinian tango posters on the wall, along with photographs of people (the owners or customers?) competing in tango competitions. The tiny size gives it the intimate feel of a family restaurant, like you’ve slipped through the borders into Argentina and into a small town.
The crust of each of the empanadas was incredibly soft on the inside with a crunchy, flaky surfacing that let small bits fall off after each bite. Going back to your plate for a second pass to scoop up your crumbs was half the fun! The edges were perfectly crimped, with different shapes depending on the type you ordered. And as you’d expect, while the pouch was uniform between dishes, what the empanada was stuffed with made each dish taste completely different. The beef empanada felt the most “traditionally” South American, with strong onion and pepper flavors. The chicken empanada was filled with peas and other vegetables to give it a sharper taste, almost like a clever take on a pot pie crossed with chicken verde.
The mozzarella and spinach empanada was a fun twist, this is a flavor that I normally associate with vegetarian calzones, but the fried dough added a distinctly South American touch that distinguished it from its Italian cousin.
This was a great place and didn’t seem very crowded, even during lunch time. It seems like they also have a substantial catering business – what a treat it would be to have a whole assortment of empanadas for a party! I’d love to go back and try the desserts or tea that we missed this time around.
Honestly, delicious food doesn’t get much better than fried dough, in any variation. Add an Argentine take to that already winning formula and a tasting-style menu, and I’m a huge fan. And now I can finally say to each of the empanadas of the world, “Don’t worry, I understand. You ARE different from the others.”
3811 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90066