Some people eat Hot Pockets. Abel Alicea’s family ate empanadas. It’s the same concept, Alicea points out – dough stuffed with beef or chicken or really anything at all: an inexpensive, satisfying, portable meal. For a busy family, what’s not to like?
Originally, the computer technology salesman fried them, as is traditional in his native Puerto Rico. But when his wife was banned from fried foods, he shifted his attention to the oven. Then Alicea’s friends started clamoring for what came out.
Then he lost his job, and you’ve probably guessed what happened next. Now he bakes 250 empanadas a day as the owner of Empanada Spanish Grill in Clifton, and can’t create new varieties fast enough. You’ll often find buffalo chicken and cheeseburger alongside the usual chicken and beef, but Alicea has also stuffed the dough pockets with shark, octopus and even – at a customer’s request – turtle meat. The empanada with chicken, pepper jack and hot peppers is known as "Prosecutor" in honor of the workers from the Passaic County prosecutor’s office who suggested it, while Alicea credits Verizon employees for a filling of shrimp with garlic sauce.
So many cultures hold a stuffed pocket as a culinary cornerstone. Indians have samosas, Italians have ravioli, Poles have pierogis and countless dumplings are beloved in other Asian countries.
Similarly, the empanada is an icon of Latin cuisine, "as important to us as tamales or ceviche," said nationally recognized chef and culinary historian Maricel Presilla of Weehawken, a Hoboken restaurateur who once baked beef empanadas for a White House dinner.
Each country has its own traditional shape, flavors, crust and filling. South American countries like Chile and Argentina generally bake the pockets, while more tropical areas tend to fry, Presilla said. Her upcoming comprehensive Latin cuisine cookbook, "Gran Cocina Latina," (scheduled for a fall release by W. W. Norton and Co.) includes a variety of empanadas, which easily use up leftovers and, Presilla insists, are as easy to make as a sandwich.
The empanada’s blank canvas is on full display in Presilla’s three Hoboken restaurants: 12-inch Galician-style rounds filled with cod or tuna at Ultramarinos, a fried Cuban-style beef version at Zafra, and cocktail empanadas stuffed with blue cheese and onion confit at Cucharamama.
In Bergenfield, Galo Grijalva just opened a tiny takeout shop called Empanada Mania. While it’s a tribute to his favorite Ecuadorean picnic food, he does not intend to be particularly authentic. Nor is he using leftovers – all of his fillings have been carefully composed.
When I stopped in recently, he was offering empanadas stuffed with teriyaki chicken, fresh spinach and feta, buffalo chicken with a blue cheese tang and a cheesy pizza pocket that was like a miniature calzone.
Grijalva, too, gave up on traditional jobs – marketing and real estate – to try to make a living from the empanadas he often made for friends’ parties. He says some people have been surprised by his non-traditional fillings, but says he simply tells customers, "If you don’t like it, it’s on me."
"A lot of them have liked it. It’s a good feeling."
Hot spots for empanadas
Empanadas are available at just about every local Latin restaurant, but they’re a focus of these two businesses:
- Where: 62 S. Washington Ave., Bergenfield
- How much: $2.50 per empanada (usually fried but can be baked upon request with advance notice), with various specials if you buy more.
- My favorites: Beef, spinach/feta
- Info: 201-374-2150, empanadamania.com
EMPANADA SPANISH GRILL
- Where: 8 Market St., Clifton
- How much: $2.25 per empanada (baked)
- My favorites: Cheeseburger, Nutella cheesecake
- Info: 973-272-8202, bakedempanada.com
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