Judging from the look of his restaurant, you'd never guess what line of work Christian Saber was in before he became a chef. Rincon Argentino, a fast-casual joint that he opened in Boulder a year ago, is an unpretentious little spot, with postcards and pictures that he and his wife took of his home country lining the walls like celebrity portraits in delicatessens. In one corner, there are shelves stocked with Argentine goods such as caramel-like dulce de leche and the strong tea called yerba mate; on the other side, near a jersey signed by the great Diego Maradona, is a TV tuned to football — i.e., soccer. With about as much space devoted to the kitchen as to tables, it's hard to get a seat at lunch, and while it's less crowded at night, you might still opt for takeout, since the lights can seem a bit bright. Otherwise the place is friendly and the staff works hard — but there's nothing here that would tip you off to Saber's previous life as a buyer in the fashion industry. Nothing, that is, except the dish that he's staked his second career on: empanadas.
See also: Behind the scenes at Rincon Argentino
These savory pies are quite stylish, if you take a moment to appreciate the artful tucks, twists, folds and flaps that Saber coaxes out of the housemade dough. Fourteen varieties are on offer, nine with meat and five with vegetables, and each has a slightly different shape, like square and round chocolates so that you can tell the caramel from the raspberry cream. Some, like the queso y cebolla (cheese and onion), are triangular, while the Patagonia, with cheese and tomato, has points like sunbeams. (All of the vegetarian empanadas, called canastas — baskets — are served open, with the filling showing through.) The curved half moon of the pollo (chicken) features lines made with the tine of a fork, while the jamón y queso (ham and cheese) has two ropes of dough that extend like a giant hug from the curved side to the straight end, where they intertwine. To tell them apart before you bite, you can ask for the "repulgues" cheat sheet, with sketches to help you ID each shape. Based on my own and others' actions at the tables around me, however, not many people take time to appreciate them aesthetically, much less study them, instead giving in to the urge to bite into the freshly baked pockets while they're still hot enough to splinter into flaky, phyllo-like shards.
2525 Arapahoe Avenue, A05, Boulder
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Pollo barbocoa $2.99
Jamn y queso $2.99
Milanesa Napolitana $12
Ensalada de palmito $4.25
Ice cream $4.99
Quince tart $4.50
In Buenos Aires, where Saber grew up, empanadas are everyday fare, delivered on ubiquitous motorcycles in cardboard boxes, kept in the freezer for nights when it's too late to cook, and served at family gatherings. Saber's mom made trays of them every Sunday, but he says he didn't do much cooking then, only eating. He cooks them now, though; several of the recipes are his mother's. At restaurants in Argentina, empanadas are treated like appetizers. But at Rincon Argentino, which means "little corner of Argentina," empanadas are intended as both appetizer and main course.
Saber's handheld Argentine specialties aren't the only things coming out of the kitchen, though. The menu also lists hearty sandwiches such as the choripan, with imported Argentine sausage; the Milanesa Napolitana, which resembles a chicken parm only with pounded, breaded steak; and the lomito, with thinly sliced steak (sometimes tougher than it should be) slathered with chimichurri, the parsley-and-garlic-heavy Argentine steak sauce. There are a few salads, too, including a refreshing medley of hearts of palm, cherry tomatoes, Parmesan and basil. But good as these other dishes are, the empanadas are even better — so you'll want to make them the centerpiece of your meal.
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It probably won't matter which empanadas you pick: I've eaten my way around the menu and have liked every one. Most are based on traditional recipes, such as the gaucho, with ground beef, caramelized onions, red peppers and raisins, and the ham and cheese, a kid-friendly pie stuffed with a slice of honey ham and plenty of mozzarella and provolone. The tradicional is also traditional (go figure), though in Argentina this pillow is known as "carne cortada a cuchillo," since the chopped steak is literally "cut with a knife." Given that the recipes for the Patagonia, with cherry tomatoes, Parmesan and garlic, and the espinaca, with sautéed fresh spinach, pine nuts and onions, were time-tested by Saber's mother, it's no wonder that they were two of our favorites. Indeed, the spinach empanada is one of the most popular varieties on a lineup without a clear bestseller. "We are cooking them all," he says.
Other varieties are less traditional, reflecting Saber's culinary training (after working in his father's boutiques for many years, he attended cooking school in Buenos Aires) and his understanding of the American palate. So while the pollo, with chopped white-meat chicken, green olives and a hint of paprika, is a classic, the pollo picante, with the addition of red-chile flakes, is not, since Argentine food tends to be milder than American fare. "We adapted to the States," he said. "For me it's super-spicy, but for people used to eating super-spicy food, it's not that hot." Without heat or even strong spices — cumin, a spice you might expect to be used liberally, isn't found in the restaurant at all — the fillings' essential flavors shine through: the brininess of the olives in the chicken, the sweetness from the caramelized onions and dried fruit in the ground beef. Even the pollo barbocoa is mild, with just enough sauce to lend a delightful whiff of mesquite. If you desire stronger flavors, you can add asado, a tomato-based salsa with cayenne, or an avocado-based salsa verde, with lime, cilantro and jalapeños. Both would be great on tortilla chips, but since Rincon doesn't serve them, I dipped leftover baguette from my lomito in the salsa verde, choosing to enjoy the simpler flavors of the empanadas on their own.
At Rincon, empanadas may be the first and second course, but they're not dessert. Saber offers a variety of sweets, including a chocolate-flecked dulce de leche ice cream made for him by Glacier Homemade Ice Cream, packaged cookies filled with dulce de leche, and a dense, housemade quince tart with a jam-like filling similar to that found in fig bars. "We eat those cakes after a barbecue on Sunday," says Saber. "When you go to somebody's house, you take one of those cakes." Given how good his savory pies are, though, maybe we should start a new tradition: offering friends not quince cakes, but empanadas.