Since moving from its original Lakewood home to South Broadway more than a year ago, Maria Empanada has been en fuego. Named one of the 12 hottest bakeries in the U.S. by Zagat last fall and soon to appear on an episode of the Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, this Argentinian bakery is amassing a steady stream of press under the simple guise of a Southern Hemisphere, SoBo sidewalk cafe. Chef-owner Lorena Cantarovici offers a breakfast menu, available only from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m., that's completely different from her lunch and dinner offerings, so make it a point to try the morning pastries, because you know what they say: The earlybird gets the empanada.
Cantarovici transformed a cold, industrial spot full of exposed brick, pipes and tin ceilings into a bright, open and welcoming space, with a whimsical sun on the exterior wall beckoning you inside. Lingering is encouraged here, where soft Latin tunes channel Argentina and the TV is tuned to futbol to set the mood. Although no families were in sight during a recent visit (I almost had the place to myself), the cafe is obviously child-friendly, with an adorable hand-painted kids' booth shaped like a bus. Albeit completely out of place among the understated elegance of the rest of the room, it could serve as good motivation to get the kiddos up and out of their race-car beds. Above the bus, Guy Fieri's stenciled stamp of approval is proof of his recent trip to Colorado to film Triple D; Maria Empanada’s episode will air in a few weeks for season 23.
Beer and wine are served all day, but a weekday breakfast is better suited to yerba mate or coffee from the impressive espresso bar for your morning buzz. It’s hard to miss the state-of-the-art espresso machine (blessed by Pope Benedict XVI himself), one of just 100 made in the world. I'm not a coffee drinker, but a glass of hand-squeezed OJ was a refreshing start to the morning.
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There are two morning breakfast specials, the Barcelona, which includes a tartita (like a mini Spanish quiche) and fresh-squeezed orange juice, and the Buenos Aires, a ham-and-cheese medialuna (similar to a croissant) paired with coffee. There's also a full case of egg-filled empanadas and tartas (savory pies) to choose from. With every delicacy wrapped in some form of flaky crust in varying shapes and sizes, deciding what to get was a challenge, especially with the Spanish learning curve. Although I was the only person in line, I felt the expectant gaze of the counter clerk and caved to the pressure of making a game-time decision. I went with the Barcelona, choosing spinach and feta filling for my tartita — and then tacked on a ham empanada.
I took my goodies, served in a wicker basket, outside to the heavily flowered patio, with oversized umbrellas providing a sheltered retreat from the noise of busy Broadway. The empanada, stuffed with salsa, potato and cheese to supplement the ham, tasted like a better version of a breakfast burrito. The crust was out of this world; the cafe's "empanada artisans" tag line is no exaggeration. You can taste the complexity that went into the details of every single fold, like the love child of that perfect pizza crust and a doughy soft pretzel. Four dipping sauces are offered for 39 cents apiece, so I selected two, thinking four would be excessive. The asado, a tomato-based chipotle blend, took the already exceptional empanada to the next level.
The spinach pie was much denser than the empanada, as if a deep-dish pizza had eaten a quiche. The fillings offered less excitement than the empanada, so the sauce sides were perfect for adding some zing to the delicate feta and more prominent spinach. I was disappointed by the oiliness of the chimichurri (I prefer the more pesto-like blend at Olive & Finch), so I went back to the asado, which could perk anything up. And since I'd skipped the caffeine, I needed that burst of flavor to jolt me into the morning. Or I could have easily returned to bed and just dreamed of those empanadas all day.