Empanada Kitchen is the kind of eatery every neighborhood deserves. It’s uncomplicated, aesthetically bright, and provides instant gratification to those seeking Argentina’s national nosh: baked empanadas.
Since first springing onto the Downtown scene in early 2018 — and now in North Park — the business sells about 20,000 of the handy dough pockets each month. That number also factors in several wholesale accounts.
The repertoire features about 15 different types of empanadas, five of them as rotating specials, and all crimped by hand in various designs based on their fillings.
Owned by Buenos Aires native Matias Rigali, and business partner Dan Housinga, a Minnesota transplant, their newest (and smaller) Uptown location has already generated steady flurries of customers, as I witnessed during the post-lunch hour on a recent Monday afternoon.
The beauty of buying empanadas in this fast-casual format is that they are plucked directly from a gently heated display case and plated or boxed to-go in a matter of seconds. No layovers in the oven required. Supplies are replenished throughout the day, which means you won’t end up with burnt crusts and parched fillings.
“They have to be juicy,” said Rigali when pointing out a few facts about how empanadas are made and eaten in his native Argentina.
The no-yeast dough, for instance, is super basic. It’s constructed from only flour, water and vegetable shortening (or beef tallow in some Argentine restaurants and households).
Ground beef empanadas are the top sellers throughout Argentina, more so than those filled with chicken or veggies. They’ve been the biggest movers in San Diego as well, according to Rigali.
Also, in countries such as Chile, Peru, Belize and the Philippines, empanadas are seen as quaint appetizers common to street festivals. In Argentina, they qualify as a meal — and consuming more than a trio of them at Empanada Kitchen will indeed hold you over for hours.
As for the chimichurri sauce given out freely with your order, it’s a simple mixture of parsley, oregano, garlic, olive oil, vinegar and a pinch of red-chili flakes. Rigali says Argentinians use it on bread and beef, and typically not on empanadas. But given the American penchant for dipping sauces, which I endorse, you’ll be mistaken to push it aside.
Between the Downtown and North Park locations (both menus are the same), I’ve tried a majority of the empanadas. My favorite, as of most recently, is the Argentine sausage, which is filled also with provolone cheese and the tangy chimichurri. Imagine a Latin version of stromboli. Unfortunately, it’s among the rotating specials, which means it shows up every seven to 10 days.
The beef empanadas are popular for good reason. The finely ground meat inside is subtly accented by red bell peppers, onions and green olives. And it drips of clear, flavorful juices.
I was equally smitten by the lamb empanada, which offered all the goodness of a lamb entree from an upscale restaurant, given that the meat is braised in red wine, rosemary, carrots and onions.
The ham and mozzarella cheese empanada verges on a savory French pastry, while the chicken version offers a generous packing of dark meat sauteed in a Spanish-style medley of tomatoes, garlic and herbs known as sofrito.
For vegans — or carnivores taking a break from saturated fats — the ratatouille empanada offers a comforting medley of roasted bell peppers, eggplant, onions, zucchini, tomatoes and garlic.
Dessert came in the form of an open-face apple empanada, which seemingly contained less sugar and more cinnamon that classic apple pie. But I didn’t mind one bit. It, too, is a rotating special.
Empanada Kitchen is riding a solid wave of success in the retail market with its canary-yellow color scheme and oven-baked products few citizens on the planet can resist.
“We don’t rule out opening a third location somewhere in San Diego, and maybe expanding into Orange County or LA,” said Rigali after ringing up a succession of empanada orders just two hours before the dinner rush was about to kick in.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.