Cafe Society

Keep it simple: Run to Empanada Express Grill for the empanadas

One bite of an empanada — the crisp exterior wall of the bready pastry giving way to a cascade of rich, savory flavor — and I realized that this plump little semi-circle is an almost perfect food. I ate a steady diet of empanadas during my tenure in South America and never tired of them. They're a staple across the continent, always filling — and always changing.

The Spanish word empanadar means "to wrap in bread," and the empanada got its start in Spain as a circular, stuffed pastry. Waves of immigrants brought the concept to South America, where it evolved regionally, incorporating local ingredients and taking on specific characteristics as countries and communities developed. Today, the way an empanada-maker stuffs his pastry gives away his nationality as clearly as the colors of his soccer jersey.

In Argentina, empanadas are made of flour, the crispy baked or fried pockets filled with rich cubes of marinated beef, sweet, pearly kernels of corn or thin shavings of ham and melted mozzarella cheese. In Chile, the raw dough is stuffed with ground beef, hard-boiled egg and raisins or seafood, then baked. In Uruguay, beef is the most common filling. In Colombia, chunks of baked potato are included in the stuffing, sometimes chorizo. In Venezuela, pan harina, a corn-based flour, is used to make the dough, which is fried into a pastry that's crispy on the outside and as crumbly as cornbread within. The fillings are unique, too: black beans and plantains are incorporated into mixes that feature beef, chicken or, in coastal communities, seafood.

Isabel Campos, owner of Empanada Express Grill, moved to Colorado nine years ago from Venezuela. She missed her country's cooking, and in 2008 opened the tiny Empanada Express cart, peddling authentic Venezuelan empanadas and arepas, griddled corn cakes stuffed with meat and vegetables, from a strip of asphalt in the middle of Golden. The cart met with quick success: These foods were perfect for the street, eaten by hand and sauced from a squeeze bottle, with plenty of paper napkins mopping up the remnants of Campos's homemade chimichurri, a traditional South American condiment that combines oil and vinegar and such spices as oregano and parsley.

By the end of summer 2009, though, Campos was tired of battling the elements — so she leased a space in a strip mall and opened Empanada Express Grill. She expanded the menu to include traditional Venezuelan appetizers and entrees — and she cooks everything, taking orders in heavily accented English and then heading back through the swinging wooden doors to the kitchen. This is still a plastic-fork-and-paper-napkin operation, with not much more atmosphere than the cart. Glass windows line the front of the small, sparsely decorated space; a few potted plants serve as decor, and a soundtrack of Latin American hits plays on a boombox. The handful of tables fill up with lunchers from downtown Golden, the Colorado School of Mines and the Coors factory, but the place often empties out over the dinner hour, when takeout is popular.

On my first visit, I missed an important detail: the whiteboard perched against a wall listing housemade juices and shakes in flavors like pineapple and passion fruit and coconut. Not knowing they were available, I made the unfortunate mistake of ordering a Freskolita. If I'd grown up in Venezuela, I might have appreciated the sensory memory brought on by the sugary soda, which has a distinct flavor reminiscent of sassafras and bubble gum. Unfortunately, it only made me recall the time I crammed a whole wheel of Bubble Tape bubble gum into my mouth and then felt nauseous for hours. On a subsequent trip, I spotted the whiteboard and discovered that Empanada Express's frothy pineapple juice almost makes up for its lack of a liquor license — though nothing goes better with empanadas than a crisp, cold, almost flavorless beer. I'd even be cool with Coors Light, since the brewery is right up the street.

At that first meal, I ordered the Taste of Venezuela platter, a sampler of classic dishes from that country. It started with tequeños, sticks of mozzarella cheese breaded and fried until the crust was golden brown and the cheese inside had melted, dripping salty grease and oozing across the tongue. Then came cachapas, cornmeal arepas studded with whole kernels of corn, pressed flat in a circle the diameter of a soda can, then pan-fried and coated with more cheese. They had a nice play of sweet and savory flavors, made more intense when doused with the vinegary chimichurri or a spicy, tomato-based red sauce that contained a lot of garlic and what I suspected was mayonnaise. A second arepa was even better: two of the same cornmeal cakes sandwiching a hefty pinch of marinated, subtly spiced shredded chicken, savory black beans and sweet fried plantains, with salty mozzarella melted over the top. As I crammed the arepa into my face, some of the filling spilled out the sides. I drenched these stragglers in the garlicky chimichurri, which made the chicken especially tasty — and ensured that no one would stand near me for the rest of the day. The best part of the platter, though, was the Pabellon Criollo empanada, a corn-flour pocket filled with tender, juicy braised beef and more black beans, more plantains and more cheese, which coated the other ingredients without overpowering them. The flavors burst forth as soon as my teeth broke through the dense, fried corn wall. I lined each bite with a ribbon of the spicy, creamy tomato sauce to intensify the richness, and marveled at how well all the elements in this adorable half-moon pocket harmonized.

Since that first meal, I've managed to work my way through every empanada on the menu. The pollo, strips of slightly dry and mildly spicy shredded chicken mixed with an almost imperceptible amount of cheese, was the least interesting — but then, I usually think chicken is an inferior meat. I could also take or leave the pescao, which upset the ideal starch-to-protein ratio by mixing rice with the thin slices of white fish and chunks of tomato. But the rajas, which combined tart sour cream and smoky poblano peppers under a thick layer of melted cheese, was excellent. So was the ham and cheese, one of the most universal South American combinations and a favorite of mine.

For a light lunch at Empanada Express, I also liked the La Mexi arepa, with just cheese and a couple of slices of avocado, and a side of fried plantains, the fruit lightly caramelized from its own sugar. At a group dinner, we ordered the mini-empanadas, which are about a third the size of the regular version and come in any combination; we loaded up on the poblano and mozzarella, as well as carnitas and Pabellon Criollo. That still left room for the day's special: a Colombian platter piled with rice and beans rich with pork and lard, a spicy pork chop oozing its own juices, and crispy chicharrones, laden with velvety fat. All that was topped with a fried egg, which brought everything into a yolky balance. The special was like a hearty, home-cooked meal, a window into the family dinner of another culture.

But the empanadas, a distinctly Venezuelan version of my nearly perfect food, will always be the reason for a run to Empanada Express. It's the simple things that count.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk