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Next I moved on to the traditional beef, another old favorite that was just as successful here. The juicy braised beef was mixed with a classic blend of bits of hard-boiled egg white, briny green-olive slices and plump, sweet raisins. Curious, I dunked one corner into the chimichurri, since that sauce usually plays well off cuts of steak. It did add a pleasant garlic-and-pepper edge, but after that bite, I returned to the unadorned empanada.
In fact, I soon abandoned all of the salsas. While I appreciated the dry heat of the hot sauce and the cooling bite of the sour cream, they didn't enhance my enjoyment of Cantarovici's craft.
And there was a lot to enjoy. The spicy-chicken empanada was filled with shredded poultry cooked with yellow onions, more hard-boiled egg whites and a little chile powder that made it not so much spicy as deeply savory and complex. We sampled a couple of versions made with mozzarella; I preferred the tango to the classic ham and cheese, since the tango added sweet onions and bell peppers to the mix. And though I'd never seen blue-cheese empanadas in Argentina, the mix of queso fresco, eggs, green olives and walnuts worked well in the filling, muting the sharp punch of the blue cheese.
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We finished our feast with alfajores, a sugar-powdered Argentine sandwich cookie stuffed with homemade dulce de leche — caramelized condensed milk — and dusted with coconut. I had a tutor in Buenos Aires who survived almost exclusively on these confections, and I thought of her as I bit into Cantarovici's version. "The cookie was very hard to get right," she told me as I chewed. "I still don't think it's there."
The cookie was chewier than the true Argentine version I remembered, but it was still an excellent, rich bite to go out on. "Que rica," I breathed as I finished, using the common Argentine term for "exquisite."
After that first stop I returned often, eating my way through every empanada that Cantarovici could throw at me, as well as the vegetable tarta. I used to eat vegetable-and-cheese pie by the slice in Argentina, pairing it with a salad and a Coca-Cola Light for a tasty midday meal between classes. Cantarovici uses zucchini, carrots, bell peppers and onions in her tarta, cutting the vegetables very small and combining them with parmesan and mozzarella to make a smooth filling inside the flaky crust. It's a good way to eat a lot of vegetables that don't really taste like vegetables — the cheese and pastry take care of that — but I still prefer the empanadas.
The last time I stopped by, it was to get a few corn empanadas for the road. As I ordered them from Cantarovici, we spent a few minutes name-checking our favorite neighborhoods and places in Buenos Aires. Then she divulged how hard it had been to get the corn empanadas right. "The first time I made them, they all exploded," she said. "I was cleaning corn off my windows!"
But she finally got it right: This is one very, very hot pocket.
Photos: In the kitchen at Maria Empanada