Favorite food find of the week: Maria Empanada

Open just five days, Maria Empanada, a tiny storefront that's dispensing food from South America, is one of those restaurants that makes me happier than an elephant freed from the circus to live in Denver.

And Lorena Cantarovici, who owns Maria Empanada, which is named for her mother, couldn't be happier that she finally has a space, located at 5209 West Mississippi Avenue, from which to hustle her incredible empanadas, tartas and Spanish tortillas.

"I came to Denver from Argentina to have a better life," says Cantarovici, who moved here in 2000, got her masters degree and a job in the corporate world before giving up the office for the kitchen. "I wasn't happy working in a corporate environment, and I wanted to do something different, so I started cooking empanadas with my mom and for the Argentinean community in Denver, and before I knew it, people starting ordering empanadas from me -- a dozen here, three dozen there, and it just kept growing."

First it was her friends who were begging to buy her empanadas, then she began to cater parties and sell her baked pastries to restaurants and food trucks like Route 40 Argentinean Grill. Eventually, she says, "everything started to blossom," especially her catering business, which required a professional kitchen. "I took over the kitchen here, not to open a restaurant, but to cater, and then the knocks on the door came, so I started giving away samples, and then the pressure mounted, so little by little, I did what it took to open the restaurant," explains Cantarovice. "Everyone comes here for the empanadas," she says, and after sampling several of them today, it's no wonder why. She offers sixteen varieties, including blue cheese; several beef empanadas; a version with sweet onions; another with ham and peppers; one with ham and cheese; and numerous vegetarian empanadas, all of which have different closings -- one is ridged, another is rounded, and still others are pronged or clamped -- and they're not only beautiful to look it, but her flavor combinations, some of which are authentically South American, while others are distinctively American, made my jaw drop in reverent awe.

But it's not just her empanadas, some of which are also sweet, that command your attention: Her Spanish tortillas and tartas are just as mind-altering. And next month, Cantarovici will begin serving breakfast empanadas. Until then, her store (which only has two tables) is open from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Do yourself a favor and go.

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