The best thing about street food is that the only utensils you normally need are your hands. Modern food trucks rallying at well-planned setups like Civic Center Eats, where shaded tables and chairs are provided, can serve messier fare that requires a knife, fork or spoon, but if you want something to nosh on while you walk — or maybe just to enjoy while nestled in the grass under a tree — hand pies are the quintessential mobile meal. Almost every culture has a version, and in Latin America, empanadas rule in many different countries. The La Chiva truck, which shows up at Civic Center Park every Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. serves a range of Colombian cuisine, including golden corn empanadas just right for a fork-free lunch.
Owner and chef Jorge Aguirre makes his empanadas completely from scratch — even the corn-based dough. He starts with whole corn kernels that he cooks down and then grinds into masa, mixing in fresh herbs before forming thin patties that become the outer shell of the empanada. "I don't think there's anyone in Denver doing anything like this," says Aguirre.
The result is a lightly crisped exterior that remains soft and creamy on the inside, so that the inner layer of masa almost melds with the fillings, which include slow cooked beef or chicken with potatoes and a vegetarian version studded with tangy bits of diced green olive. An order of three with a side of tangy sauce (La Chiva recommends biting off a corner and pouring the sauce into the empanada filling) will set you back $8; you can get three of a kind or one of each, if you can't decide.
Aguirre hasn't been a professional cook for very long, but has been cooking and enjoying the food of his home country for as long as he can remember. He and his wife first moved to the Denver area ten years ago but his job in information technology took him to Illinois for a short time. When that job ended in 2013, he moved back to Denver to fulfill a lifelong dream, attending cooking school so that he could cook Colombian food for a larger audience than just his friends and family. La Chiva began serving last July as one of the opening food vendors at TheBigWonderful outdoor food and crafts fair in the RiNo neighborhood.
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The empanada recipe came from Aguirre's mom and the Colombian tamales — larger than their Mexican counterpart and steamed in banana leaves — came from his sister-in-law, who helped him perfect the recipe for his food truck. Another dish on the menu, arroz con pollo, is something he has been making his whole life.
You don't have to wait until next Thursday to sink your teeth into a La Chiva empanada; the truck also serves its South American specialties — including Colombian soft drinks and juices — every Saturday at TheBigWonderful and at a number of local craft breweries on other nights, like the second and fourth Friday of every month at Wit's End Brewing.