I'm not sure what sign the Golden location has now, but it seems that in moving to Denver, the owner has settled on one of two names: Empanda Grill or Empanada Express Grill. I found myself there as my wife, twins and I were headed out for another First Friday art walk, although this month instead of the crowded and rowdy Santa Fe we chose the decidedly more family-oriented and mellow Tennyson version.
However, before setting out on another double stroller adventure we needed to fuel up, as negotiating the four-wheeled monstrosity that is a stroller-for-two over rough, broken sidewalks, curbs, stairs, grass and the occasional drunken, over-friendly pedestrian calls for some serious calories. And what better calorie-laden cuisine than house-made empanadas and arepas from Denver's premier Venezuelan eating institution: Empanada Grill.
The interior of the new Empanada Grill on 44th and Tennyson is as angular and odd-shaped as the far-away Golden hub making one wonder if this is by chance or if there is something in an awkwardly tapering trapezoid that just seems right to the owners. The shape of the restaurant, however visually appealing and culinarily (that may not be a word) inspiring it may be to the ownership, makes it rather challenging to maneuver and park a double stroller, as leaving it near the entrance means obstructing crucial restaurant operations and pushing it to the back causes it to act like a cork, bottling up access to the back tables. In retrospect, as I learn there is proper stroller etiquette in times like these (i.e. leave it outside asshole) I could have, well, left it outside. But being that there was only one other table occupied I didn't think it would matter.
It didn't. At least to the friendly server, who became instantly enamored with our twins as she herself was one. Although I have heard complaints about the service, for us, like in our previous experience it was-- if not fast by any stretch of the imagination-- at least friendly and inviting.
Last time I ate here I was impressed with the quality of everything I ate, from the empanadas and arepas to the myriad Venezuelan specialties like the tequeños y cachapas.
This time around I ordered a platter of Venezuelan specialties first and foremost of which was La Criolla arepa. This traditional circular corn masa delight is stuffed with a mix of shredded beef, black beans, fried plantain and queso blanco. The masa dough was wonderfully crisp on the outside and perfectly done yet pleasingly mushy on the inside. I think I read on the menu that these were baked. If that is the case I wish all my baked goods could taste this fried.
I also had empanada stuffed with carnitas. The Mexican-style carnitas were neither fully Mexican nor Venezuelan, but they were wonderfully tender and full of slow-cooked flavor. My wife ordered one with a fish filling, that was absolutely incredible and maybe my favorite bite of the night. Like the arepa, the empanada masa itself--although certainly fried--was a perfect balance of crisp and soft. And both masas were better than I remember them being before.
We also tried a few Hallacas, or Venezuelan Tamales.
They were cooked in plantain leaves and filled with things like olives, raisins, capers and a generous helping of ground beef. The slightly sweet and strongly savory was balanced well by the rich masa dough and made for an absolutely delicious tamale.
I also had a few of the aforementioned tequeños y cachapas. The cachapa, or mashed and fried sweet corn cake topped with the ubiquitous "white cheese" was as I remember it. I am not a huge lover of this slightly-too-sweet mash and it was the only thing left on my plate by the end of the meal. The tequeños, on the other hand, like the arepas and empanadas were even better then I remember them. It is hard to go wrong with a fried stick of cheese, but this dough was light, fluffy and slightly sweet--almost like a donut. A donut, that is, stuffed with cheese. Need I say more?
Tequeño on top, cachapa underneath
While I was pleased with what I ate the first time at Empanada Express Grill this last time--as I've now mentioned several times-- I thought was even better. I'm not sure if they changed their masa recipe or the way they cook it. Maybe I was in Golden on an "off" night (though it was still quite good), or maybe this night was a particularly good night for the kitchen. It could be that just eating empanadas that much closer to my house made them taste that much better. Whatever the case, if there is any chance of you getting a traditional Venezuelan meal like we had that night, you should make your way on over to the Empanada Express Grill as soon as you can.