In other eras of my life, half-eaten empanadas would have been a step up from my usual meal, and it did cross my mind to reach over onto my neighbor's plate and sample his cold, already-been-chewed-on pastry. But I didn't really know too many people at this party, and I try not to embarrass my wife in front of her friends when I can help it, so I restrained myself and let it be.
A plateful of Cuban food later I was content and had just about forgotten those empanadas, but as we were leaving I saw a black-white menu on the counter; it read: Maria Empanada. I proceeded to stuff it in my pocket only to get a glare from my wife that read: "We don't take things from other people's homes without asking." Point taken, and since our hostess was busy with goodbyes, and all the hugging and kissing that goes along with that, I made the questionable call to try and remember to check out Maria Empanada as soon as possible.
Luckily my memory for eating potentially great food is better than my memory for the rest of life's more mundane tasks, and a few weeks later we made the trip to Lakewood to check it out.
Maria Empanada is an inviting little building that Buenos Aires native Lorena Cantarovici recently opened on Mississippi just East of Sheridan. Made to look like a rustic log cabin (it used to be a BBQ joint), it practically glows with welcoming warmth on an otherwise grungy street ripe with strip mall storefronts and half-empty parking lots. The inside is cozy and has a simple elegance that will make you want to stay all day, but the small space only has two tables and four chairs so the preferred method of ordering is take-out.
The empanada spread was thin when we entered, but it was an hour from closing and Lorena gladly offered to make us anything we wanted if we were willing to wait about seven minutes. With both babies asleep in their car seats on the floor we couldn't think of anything better than to catch our collective breath and sniff at the aroma of baking dough as it wafted from the kitchen.
In addition to the empanadas, there is also a lovely display of Spanish Tortillas and Argentine Tartas. After about three minutes of staring at these savory cakes, we decided we definitely needed to take home a couple slices.
Soon after the empanadas started to appear, and the very attentive man at the register arranged the dozen in a box, painstakingly labeling each on the lid above.
He then asked us if we would like any dipping sauce. From the four options we picked the chimichurri and the hot red salsa. We loaded it all up in our arms, excited to get home and enjoy our Argentine feast.
As is my wife's custom (a product of being raised in a big city where being cheated is the norm), on the way to the car she scrutinized the receipt and pointed out that we were charged for the sauces. That's like having to pay more for the salsa on your tacos, or for a packet of mustard for your hot dog. Sure it was only 70 cents on top of a 30-some dollar tab, but as they say, it's the principle of the thing.
70 cents worth of chimichurri and a mild hot sauce
Seconds later, however, I forgot all about being nickel-and-dimed for my chimichurri as I was biting into a spicy beef empanada and loving it. Still hot from the oven, the dough was flaky and slightly crisp. It was delicate but just hardy enough that the juicy fillings didn't leak all over my lap. The beef was not spicy in the least when you eat as many tacos as I do, but we are talking Argentina, Che, and if I closed my eyes and concentrated, I think I could taste that Porteño "kick".
Upon arriving home and re-warming our haul in the oven, I dug into a traditional beef, which has raisins on top of the spicy beef ingredients of olives, onions, peppers and eggs. This Argentine classic is what I had been hoping for when I first espied that menu and it did not disappoint. Even reheated it did not lose any of its crisp, flaky allure, and the subtle sweetness of the occasional raisin rounded out the strong, savory olives.
The only one I didn't love was the Blue Cheese that also came stuffed with melted queso fresco, walnuts olives and eggs. All the flavors, even the fresh-baked excellent dough got lost in an abyss of pungent cheese. The earthy Mushroom empanada, however, had just the right amount of cheese, and with plenty of simply seasoned sauteed mushrooms, this was one of my favorites.
The classic Ham and Cheese along with the Tango (ham, cheese, bell peppers, onions) were also excellent as the simple flavors let the dough shine.
My absolute favorite of the night was the Spinach. In the middle of this sauteed-spinach-and-onion-filled empanada was a hard boiled egg yolk. The meaty yolk and the gooey spinach were perfect together, and once again, the flavors were enhanced by the wonderful dough.
Cantarovici also makes Argentine Tartas, essentially a large pie with a flaky, empanada-like crust. We chose the Vegetable tarta. It was densely packed with finely julienned veggies (carrots, zucchini, bell pepper, onion) and a ton of fresh flavor. It was delicious.
And finally we tried a simple Tortilla Española. The layers of thin potatoes were perfectly cooked, as was the egg holding it all together. Bits of red and green bell peppers rounded out this well-executed, tasty tortilla.
The good of paying money for miniscule amounts of sauce is that it teaches one conservation. Maybe that was the point. In a move true to my Midwestern upbringing that would make my mother (and mother-in-law) proud, instead of throwing out the remains as I might have with free salsa, I put both almost-empty containers back in the fridge. It was only yesterday, almost two weeks after our empanada run that I felt compelled to finally throw them out.
There is still 7 or 8 cents of sauce left in there!
Cantarovici's empanadas have that home-cooked feel, and they should, as each is hand rolled and baked fresh continuously throughout the day. All in all I was impressed. Having spent a bit of time in the Capital Federal de Argentina, I would say it is well worth a trip to visit for a taste of a Porteña-made empanada right here in Denver. I only hope she is able to expand the seating options at some point, as it is such a great space.