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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.

Maria Empanada owner Lorena Cantarovici with an Argentine tarta. More photos: In the kitchen at Maria Empanada.
Mark Manger
Maria Empanada owner Lorena Cantarovici with an Argentine tarta. More photos: In the kitchen at Maria Empanada.

Location Info

Map

Maria Empanada

5209 W. Mississippi Ave.
Lakewood, CO 80226

Category: Restaurant > South American

Region: Southwest Denver

Details

Maria Empanada
Tarta, slice $4.95
Empanadas $2.45 ea.
Alfajores $1.75 ea.
5209 West Mississippi Avenue, Lakewood
303-934-2221
Hours: 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday

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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

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