NYC Food Adventures: Empanada Mama

Notes from a New York City Foodie Trip

Have I been dethroned? Empanada Mama does make a great empanada.

Everyone who knows me, knows that I love to cook. And anyone that knows me well, knows that my specialty are beef empanadas. It’s what I take to potlucks when I’m feeling generous (it’s pretty time consuming to close them) and I’ve been known to even auction them off at charity events. Empanadas – pastry shells filled with meats and/or vegetables and then folded in half into half-moon shapes – are a specialty of Argentina, my home country. I grew up eating them at least once a week, and you can find them in almost every restaurant, café and bakery in Argentina. Indeed, during our last trip my husband managed to find a café where they weren’t in the menu – he just assumed they were so he ordered them – and the waiter just went around the corner to a bakery and picked one up for him.

But empanadas, made with an endless variety of fillings, are eaten, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout Latin America, and South America in particular. They came to the continent with the Spaniards, who are presumed to have inherited them from the Moors – beyond that, we find filled pastries under different names throughout much of the world. And it’s no wonder. Empanadas and their cousins are convenient, as you can eat them on the go without need of silverware, they are relatively cheap, in addition to delicious. Even within Latin American countries, there are a myriad of varieties of empanadas, differing both on the pastry and the fillings used.

It’s thus not surprising that New York City, a town where immigrants and descendants of immigrants from the world over congregate, would have restaurants specializing on empanadas. Empanada Mama is a Colombian restaurant, but among the 40 empanadas they offer, they have flavors from all over the world.
While fried corn flour empanadas are most common in Colombia, Empanada Mama’s menu mostly emphasizes fried wheat flour empanadas, though they have a few fried corn flour and baked wheat flour ones. At home, I always bake my empanadas. I don’t have a deep fryer and I do not like deep frying on a pan. In addition, baked empanadas keep longer and you can eat those with meat fillings at room temperature and microwave those with cheese or sweet fillings. But I do believe fried empanadas are tastier, and that’s what I always order at restaurants. At Empanada Mama, they did not disappoint.

While Empanada Mama serves other dishes in addition to empanadas – their nachos and arepas were tempting – we were there to eat empanadas, so we stuck to those. We weren’t terribly hungry after that morning’s breakfast at La Grande Boucherie, so we shared three savory empanadas and two sweet ones.

El toro empanada

The El Toro empanada (braised oxtail with Jamaican pepper, chipotle, red wine, onion, carrot, thyme, and maduros – $4.80) was probably my favorite. It had the intensity of flavor I like to find in empanadas, without being particularly spicy. I’d definitely order it again.


Mike wanted to try a traditional Colombian empanada (albeit with a wheat shell), so he went for the Shredded Beef empanada (slow-cooked beef marinated in traditional Colombian spices with onion – $4.80). He was quite happy with it. He claims he still prefers the flavor of my empanadas, but he really liked the texture of the shredded beef. I’m now thinking perhaps I should try making a ropa vieja empanada and see how that works.

My memories of the Cuban empanada (slow-roasted pork and ham with Mozzarella cheese and a touch of sofrito sauce – $4.50) are less vivid, but I do remember liking it quite a bit. The picture I took of it, however, came out very blurry, so I’m not posting it.

sweet empanadas

I’m a huge fan of cheese and fruits together – pineapple is one of my favorite toppings for pizza, and I love the cheese-and-plum soufflé empanadas at El Ladrillo, in my home city of La Plata -, so I was intrigued by both the Romeo & Juliet empanada (guava & Mozzarella cheese – $4.50) and the Caramel & Cheese Empanada ($4.50). I finally decided on the latter, and I was happy to confirm my suspicions that it would be a wonderful combination. The caramel was really dulce de leche, and it went great with the light flavored, slightly salty Mozzarella cheese. Whenever I’ve tried to make empanadas with Mozzarella, the cheese has been swallowed by the pastry and they’ve ended up hollow. Here, however, the cheese was fully present. I’m not sure if this was because of the type of pastry dough they used, because they were fried, rather than baked, or simply because the dulce de leche did something to prevent the dough from absorbing the cheese. Hoping it’s the latter, I’m going to try making them. I’ll report later on how they worked.

Mike ordered the Belgian (chocolate) & Banana Empanada ($4.50) and he wasn’t as pleased. The dark chocolate was just too intense, and I don’t think chocolate works that well with empanada pastry. Of everything we ordered that day, it’s the one thing we wouldn’t get again. While the empanadas themselves were the traditional size, they were almost overfilled, so two empanadas should satisfy a typical appetite.

We visited the Hell Kitchen’s branch of Empanada Mama, but they have three other locations in Manhattan – all open 24 hours, so no matter when you get the munchies, you’ll be able to get one. While some of the locations seem like take out spots, the Hell Kitchen restaurant offers ample seating in the back and waiter service. Their menus are, annoyingly, online through a QR code, but they do have printed menus if you ask for them. Service was friendly and efficient, and while the restaurant lacks much of an ambiance, it’s comfortable enough. If we ever go back to NYC, I’d be happy to hit Empanada Mama again.

Empanada Mama
765 9th Ave,
New York City, NY 10010
(212) 698-9008

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