Better than Your Mama’s Empanadas – Top Picks in San Diego
Tucking savory, cheesy and sweet ingredients into puffy baked pockets of dough is pure genius. These portable meals have a VIP spot welded into my heart. They put the “Hot Pocket” to shame – rightfully so – and can be found throughout the ‘hoods’ of San Diego. The next episode of David Chang’s Ugly Delicious should be on Empanadas. Their cultural ties and historical background seem to crossover geographically. These tasty handheld pies have Italian, Latin and South American roots and I love each variety equally. As far as the spots I’ve found in San Diego, these are my top four:
Chef Oz runs the show at this University Heights spot and serves up Argentinian tapas, flatbreads and empanadas. My dinner date and I pulled up a seat at the bar and let Chef Oz take us through his menu. First to hit the table was a brisket empanada. A take on the traditional ground beef empanada, this baby was stuffed with shredded marinated brisket, sautéed and caramelized onions, and gooey mozzarella. A little balsamic reduction finished it off. Perfection. The star of the night was the Vegetarian empanada. Savory and sweet, the ingredients mixed magnificently. Greens, shrooms, Kalamata olives, piquillo peppers, goat cheese and basil pesto. Hell yes. Another rock star in this kick ass concert of flavors is the dessert empanada: Ate de Guayaba and Manchego cheese. I would gladly pack on a few pounds to have this with my morning coffee (every morning). Sidebar: Cueva bar also serves up some damn good sangria. It has a little kick. I like a kick.
Tucked in the heart of Liberty Public Market one can find fluffy, baked empanadas housing a variety of ingredients. Back to my comment about David Chang’s show discussing restaurants executing menus that dance between cultures and crisscross cuisines, this spot hits the nail on the head. From the Italian-influenced Margherita to a Mexican-influenced Chicken Chipotle, you have it all. I tried a trifecta of empanadas: rajas + roasted tomato, spinach + mozz, and shredded chicken with bell peppers + sautéed onions. Popeye would approve of the spinach empanada. I approve of all three. Each little pocket is made with all organic ingredients and sauces are made in house. My man Sebastian behind the counter let me in on a pro tip: check out the Farmer’s Markets in Ocean Beach, Imperial Beach, Oceanside and Otay Ranch as they serve these guys, but fried. Mmmm.
Newest Empanada spot to hit San Diego is brought to you by local purveyors and entrepreneurs Matias Rigali and Dan Housenga. I visited with a good friend a few weeks back and can still taste the savory flavors. We pulled up two seats, grabbed a couple of LaCroix sparklers and let the two guys behind the magic share their journey – from conception to fruition – as we dove into one of everything on the menu. These little cups of love are off-the-charts delicious. From the traditional beef to the sautéed chicken to the vegan ratatouille. All good. However, my favorite was the mushroom and goat cheese. Spilling out with each bite, this one will send you right to nirvana. I’m not ashamed to admit I’d stand on street corners for a good chimichurri, and this spot’s simplistic yet powerful Argentinian sauce will keep me from becoming a lady of the night. Cheers to that.
Wild card. Everyone needs one and this spot is it when it comes to empanadas. Why you ask? Because Executive Chef Kevin Templeton stuffs his with duck confit. Duck confit and so many other goods. A mix of sweet corn, arugula, goat cheese, and lime crema are tucked into perfectly crisp and flakey baked pockets. These guys are served with a side of roasted poblano beer-cheese and crispy duck skin sauce. Add a beer and a bourbon and you’ll be living your best life. Perfect time to experience this brilliance is on a cooler, gloomy day, it will warm your soul right up. Chef Kevin uses all sustainably-sourced ingredients and is a leading force when it comes to food waste reduction in San Diego. Not only am I a super fan of his food, but his character as well. Get in there and get you some.