Empanadas are having a moment. Once the exclusive province of Latin bakeries and delis these filled turnovers have burst onto the food scene, inspiring dedicated shops and trucks, turning up at parties and festivals and taking on new flavors as diverse as chicken-bacon-ranch and Oreo cookies.
Founded in Ronkonkoma in 2011 as a bricks-and-mortar empanada specialist, Island Empanada now has five locations on Long Island, three of which opened in the last six months and another two are due to open this spring. Founder Roy Pelaez summed up the pastry's appeal: “They’re handheld — like pizza or a burger, they’re easy to eat, they’re delicious, they’re versatile and they’re never very expensive.”
At its most basic, an empanada is a dough skin wrapped around a filling. “Wrapped in bread” is the literal Spanish translation and while the tradition may have started in Spain, it reached its true efflorescence in Latin America, where virtually every country has an empanada tradition. (Consider also British pasties, Indian samosas, Central Asian samsas, Italian panzerotti and Jewish knishes.)
Dualities abound in Empanada World. Wrapper doughs can be made from wheat flour or masa harina (corn flour). Fillings run from sweet or savory. And the turnovers may be baked or fried.
On Long Island, frying is the preferred cooking method. I’m not going to tell you that frying makes a more delicious empanada (although it does), but it is so much quicker (less than five minutes versus up to 15 for baking) that most outlets eschew the oven for the deep fryer.
The biggest challenge is keeping track of the different flavors because, no disrespect to empanadas, they all look alike. At Island Empanada's production facility in Rocky Point, Roy Pelaez has a complex system of labeling trays and shelves of uncooked empanadas. Once one of the 30 varieties is chosen for the fryer, a magnet bearing its name accompanies it all the way to the takeout counter, where it is slipped into a bag with the appropriate sticker.
At Empanadas & More in Nesconset (20-plus varieties), each empanada bears a distinctive pattern of holes punched into the sealed edge: seven, for example, signifies “sweet plantain and mozzarella.”
The most traditional empanadas are filled with beef, chicken, cheese, potatoes and variations thereof. But newfangled specimens might flaunt Philly cheesesteaks, spinach and feta, Nutella or, inevitably, macaroni and cheese.
There are worse ways to spend time than driving all over Long Island learning about and sampling empanadas in all their extravagant profusion. Here are the fruits of a week of serious empanading:
Vicky's Casa del Sabor
Vicky's Casa del Sabor (771 N. Wellwood Ave., Lindenhurst): It all started with empanadas. Before she opened her takeout shop in 2011, Vicky Ramos was making empanadas for friends and family, even bringing trays of them to hungry factory workers. Ramos' mother is from Colombia and, at first, the fried turnovers hewed to a traditional Colombian recipe: Beef and potato or chicken and potato. But Ramos began fiddling, adding new fillings such as pork, shrimp and three cheeses. Then her imagination began to run wild: "Hawaiians" empanadas stuffed with ham, pineapple and cheese; "El Cono" with dulce de leche, chocolate and waffle-cone shards; "La Tripleta" with fajita chicken, pepper steak and ham; "Bacon bomb" with bacon and cheese; not to mention loaded baked potatoes, Oreo-Nutella. She has about 40 varieties to choose from, almost all of which cost $2.50. More info: 631-225-5040, vickyscasadelsabor.com
Doce Empanadas (566 Westbury Ave., Carle Place): "Doce" means twelve in Spanish and that's how many empanadas are on the menu at Erika and Fernando Rodriguez's charming shop. Erika had a long career in food service and, said her husband, she's the detail-oriented production master. Fernando, with a background in media production and DJ-ing, is the creative force. Countries all over Latin America make the filled-and-fried turnovers; Fernando hails from Argentina, so that's the dominant style in Doce's kitchen. The bestselling beef empanada features a succulent and lively blend of ground meat, red and green peppers, sliced olives and hard-boiled eggs. Tied for second place are chicken (swap out the beef for chicken) and Buffalo chicken (minus olives and eggs, rendered piquant with hot sauce). Pepperoni-cheese and spinach-ricotta pay home to Durazzano deli, which used to occupy this spot. I was wary of but ultimately won over by the zany Hawaiian empanada filled with ham, provolone and pineapple. All empanadas are $2.50. More info: 516-333-5750
Empanadas and More
Empanadas and More (155 Smithtown Blvd., Nesconset): Suffolk residents Sandra and Harold Soler opened this takeout-only shop last year, thinking it would be a simpler, closer-to-home business than the pan-Latino El Patron restaurant they operate in Queens. Sandra has barely sat down since. She commands a small army of cooks engaged in the manufacture of about 20 Colombian empanadas, using flour wrappers for 13, corn flour for the five. Standouts among the corn crew include the shredded beef and potato, which is also studded with plump raisins and pieces of olive, and a happy vegan number of white rice, black beans and sweet plantain. On the wheaten front, don't miss the crumbled Colombian chorizo sausage with potatoes and jalapeños or the vibrantly green spinach with feta and ricotta. Empanadas range from $1.99 to $2.50. A Mexican-American-Colombian mashup features a beef, chicken or sausage empanada split open and garnished, Taco Bell-style, with shredded iceberg lettuce, sour cream and cheese ($2.99). More info: 631-656-8270, empanadasli.com
Mama’s Cuban Kitchen
Mama's Cuban Kitchen (3434 Hempstead Tpke., Levittown): Clara Marino-Abel left a travel-heavy career as a software-testing project manager to spend more time with her ailing father but soon found herself with another calling: Sharing specialties from the family's native Cuba via Mama's Cuban Kitchen food truck. Among them are fried empanadas filled with beef, chicken, cheese, black beans and cheese, roast pork and onions and sweet guava-cheese. Empanadas are $3 each; buy a box of 10 for $25. Track the truck's whereabouts on its website, but it is usually parked alongside Levittown's Good Shepherd Lutheran Church every Wednesday and Friday. Thursday finds her at 72 E. 5th St., Huntington Station (behind NYU Langone Medical Group). More info: 516-736-7010, mamascubankitchen.com
Island Empanada (601 Portion Rd., Ronkonkoma): Roy Pelaez can fairly claim the title of Long Island's Empanada King. His little Ronkonkoma shop, established in 2011, has spawned a truck and four more Suffolk locations. Two stores (Ronkonkoma and Rocky Point) and a truck proved as much as he and his wife, Kathy, can handle; all other ventures, present and future, are franchises. Bronx-born, Ronkonkoma-raised and of proud Puerto Rican heritage, Pelaez's empanadas range from traditional (shredded chicken, the bestselling beef with cheese) to cross-cultural (Philly cheesesteak, spinach and feta) to adaptations of other Latin American specialties such as Cuban sandwiches, pernil (roast pork) and nachos (refried beans, mango salsa and Cheddar cheese). Empanadas, $3.49, are fried but can be baked for special orders. (Other locations at 29 Rocky Point Yaphank Rd., Rocky Point; 1912B Deer Park Ave., Deer Park; 2040 Route 112, Medford; 146 W. Jericho Tpke. Huntington Station.) More info: islandempanada.com
San Antonio Bakery & Restaurant
San Antonio Bakery & Restaurant (174 Rockaway Ave., Valley Stream): Ruben and Elizabeth Guzman opened their Chilean bakery in 1995; nine years ago they added a dining room and became a proper restaurant. Either setting suits the generous empanadas, baked in the traditional Chilean manner. The most famous, Ruben said, is the beef empanada, an enormous bruiser of a package, rectangular and stuffed with shredded flank steak, raisins, olives and half a hard-cooked egg. The chicken empanadas are triangular and both the fried cheese and cheese-and-shrimp are crescent shaped, distinguished only by the folded back edges of the latter (or is it the former?). All are enhanced by the Chilean hot salsa, pebre, which Ruben calls "the magic touch." Baked empanadas range from $3.50 to $4.50; fried from $6.45 to $7.36, two per order. More info: 516-568-0075, panaderiachilenany.com
Roadhouse Empanadas: Necessity was the mother of invention for Lisa Pyros and Michael Kreischer. None of the taverns they owned in and around Northport had a kitchen so, in 2015, they bought a truck to prepare food. Once they started doing festivals and carnivals and breweries, empanada sales began to outpace those of the Cuban sandwiches, quesadillas, wings and more. Recipes are informed by Pyros's mother's Chilean heritage, but that's only a starting point: These fried babies are filled with chicken-bacon-ranch, chipotle chicken, Spinach and feta, crab Rangoon, bacon cheeseburger, "2020" (turkey with all the fixings) and even "pizza supreme" (marinara, mozzarella and ricotta -- yes, that's a fried calzone). Dessert empanadas include flan, s'mores and strawberry-Nutella. There are more than 20 varieties, each is $4 or $7 for two. Check the truck's Facebook page for the schedule. More info: 631-764-7248, facebook.com/RoadhouseEmpanadas
Jessy's Pastries (3212 Long Beach Rd, Oceanside): Jessy Nahmias did not set out to be an empanadapreneur. The former math teacher began selling homemade empanadas at fairs and festivals. She opened a shop in Oceanside in 2016 and another one in Westbury in 2018 -- both of which sell a range of baked delicacies from Nahmias' native Peru. Although most of the empanadas are baked (in the Peruvian manner), the crisp snap of pastry feels like fried. There are classic beef, beef-cheese and chicken fillings but Nahmias, a long-standing vegan, offers many vegetarian and vegan empanadas such as roasted sweet plantains with cheese, soy chorizo with sweet plantains, vegan beef with rice and vegetables, barbecued jackfruit with sweet potatoes and vegan mac and cheese. Most empanadas are $6.50 for two; buy six for $18 or 10 for $25. (Other location at 469 Old Country Rd., Westbury.) More info: jessyspastries.com
Empanadaville (374 Neighborhood Rd., Mastic Beach): Jessica Rodriguez used to sell mail-order flan before setting up Empanadaville with her partner, Justin Friedman, in 2015. Most of the 30-plus varieties are based on Puerto Rican Rodriguez-family recipes but others (shepherd's pie, BBQ chicken-cheese) are more fanciful. A frequent special is the "Puerto Rico" stuffed with six-hour-roasted pernil pork, sweet plantains, Jack and Cheddar cheeses. Of course there's a flan-stuffed empanada for dessert, but also one stuffed with rainbow cookies and a "death by chocolate" stuffed with chocolate cake, chips, Oreos, marshmallow and Nutella. All empanadas are $2.95. Warm weather is when this takeout shop for Puerto Rican-style empanadas shines brightest: al fresco tables accommodate about 15 diners. More info: 631-399-3526, empanadaville.net
La Sevillana (481 Maple Ave., Westbury): The town of Sevilla, located in mountains of eastern Colombia, is called the coffee capital of Colombia, and the bustling Westbury bakery bursts with national pride, from the cases full of sweet and savory confections to the haute-zaftig canvases on the walls, painted in the style of the great Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Although the ham-cheese-pineapple empanadas here are made with wheat-flour wrappers, the lush beef and chicken are encased in golden corn. (All $1.75.) Don't miss the empanaditas (two for $1), golden bite-sized packets filled with a mixture of potato and, a new one on me, cascara de soja, soybean pods. These russet shreds add a nutty, meaty note to the proceedings. (Other location at 372 Fulton Ave, Hempstead.) More info: Westbury: 516-280-6050; Hempstead: 516-538-9857
Caribeno (1231 Grundy Ave., Holbrook): Empanadas are a gateway food at this Dominican deli. Owner Jose Ortiz said that customers often ask for one to keep them occupied while they decide what else they might want to eat. "Then the next day they get a few to take into the office and soon they're calling at 6 a.m. and asking me to have 50 ready for them to pick up." He'll sell 200 on a slow day, 500 on a busy day, 1,000 if he's also cooking for an event. The thin wheat wrappers develop a moonscape of surface bubbles during their time in the fryer; the skins give way to well seasoned fillings of shredded chicken or ground beef. (Both are $1.50, buy a dozen for $15.) (Other location at 278 B. Ronkonkoma Ave., Lake Ronkonkoma.) More info: Holbrook 631- 619-6661; Lake Ronkonkoma: 631-619-6661
Sabor Latino Bakery
Sabor Latino Bakery (1549 Brentwood Rd, Bay Shore): The expanse of central Suffolk that lies between the Long Island Expressway and Southern State Parkway is home to scores of bakeries and delis that evince strong empanada game. This friendly little Colombian bakery is outdone by none. The sunny yellow fried crescents, slightly squared off, resemble nothing so much as Gabila knishes. The chicken and beef empanadas ($1.50) are both made with corn wrappers and both meats are rounded out with potato. The friable crusts and creamy filings make these empanadas particularly easy to manage with one hand while you use the other one to back out of your parking space. More info: 631-328-4735
Empanada Queen (830 Sunrise Hwy., Baldwin): Her Royal Highness Marcia Proano and her consort, Marcos, launched the Empanada Queen truck in 2016 and have spent most of their time during the last four years parked in front of Pep Boys, delighting Baldwinites and visitors from other burgs. Empanadas are fried, their fillings made according to recipes developed by Marcia's Honduran grandmother. The eight regular flavors are beef, chicken, cheese, pork, shrimp, turkey, vegetable (broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower and carrot) and mac and cheese. On the sweet side: peanut butter and jelly, Nutella-banana, apple, pineapple-coconut. Prices range from $2.50 to $3, add cheese for another dollar. Make it a meal by adding such sides as rice, beans, slaw or fried plantains. Make it a party by upgrading to a box: 10 empanadas for $21.50, 20 for $40.50. More info: 516-508-6625