Empanada Mama – sampling the menu

After an unsuccessful day of boot shopping, Derek and I headed over to Totto Ramen, a favorite of ours. Faced with a massive line, we went to Empanada Mama and managed to get a table, beating the crowd that followed. Faced with a massive menu, we made up for missing a meal by asking for twelve empanadas, necessarily veering away from the “safe” choices of beef and chicken. When our order arrived (in paper bags with labels stamped across the front) we  received looks of envy from those waiting outside. Overall, there were some winners and some losers, which I cover after the slideshow.

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All empanadas arrive with two sauces, a green mix of jalapeno and garlic, and a red one that was simply Tabasco. The former was for cooling it down, whereas the latter was for heating it up. Favorites in bold.

Greek Sausage Pie ($2.65) – they used actual Greek sausage to make this baked, wheat flour empanada, but the promised “Mediterranean spices” were either too weak to be tasted or nonexistent.

Chilli and Beef ($2.40) – the corn flour casing had a satisfying crunch on each bite. Derek and I both enjoyed how much it reminded us of a good taco. The ground beef was spiced well and cooked slowly to retain the juices.

Pernil ($2.55) – this empanada was filled with juicy, slow-roasted pork. The meat had a soft, almost feathery, texture. Highly flavorful, highly recommended.

Desayuno Colombiano ($2.25) – not only was this the cheapest empanada, it was also a breakfast item available during our late lunch. I found the chunks of Columbian sausage too chewy, and neither Derek nor I could locate the egg inside. Fortunately, the cheese was portioned appropriately and the Spanish onion added an interesting flavor to the breakfast mix.

Chorizo ($2.60) – labeled simply as “sausage,” this empanada was another that was packed to the brim in meat. There wasn’t much flavor to it despite the herbs and spices included inside. I needed to soak it in Tabasco to enjoy.

Desayuno Americano ($2.25) – another novelty item, this empanada included top round steak, cheddar, eggs, and Spanish onions. Again, the eggs weren’t there. This was basically the same as the Colombian breakfast empanada with a different meat. The low price point may be tempting, but it isn’t worth it.

Greek Spinach Pie ($2.65) – this had to be the worst (thing I’ve eaten all week). The spinach was unpleasantly dry and the feta tasted rubbery. I will note that the shell was impressively thin.

Mushrooms ($2.65) – this single-filling empanada had a very earthy taste, but lacked the delicate mushroom flavor that I was looking for. The portobello mushrooms dominated the entire empanada, leaving very little room for the white mushrooms and onions.

Spicy Chicken ($2.80) – this has always been my favorite. The chunks of chicken breast are always perfectly slow-cooked and soak up their special picante sauce very well. The shell even had a brick-red tint, hinting that the filling contained a mouth-watering, spicy filling. The spice is quite robust and stays with you for a while, so I’d save it for last. They seem to be aware of the popularity and priced accordingly.

Romeo and Juliet ($2.80) – this dessert empanada had guava paste and an excessive amount of mozzarella cheese on each bite. The guava paste was hardly there in comparison.

Figs, Caramel, and Cheese ($2.80) – another wheat flour empanada for dessert. The subtly sweet figs and caramel had too much cheese to compete against and were difficult to isolate without trying. I imagine this happened because it’s cheaper to fill an empanada with cheese than anything else. Still, a portion of it was hollow.

On their website, there’s a quote from New York Magazine’s profile: “the something-for-everyone philosophy makes this Latin patty palace a distinctly American joint.” If that’s the case, it fails as an “American joint.” The experimentation with an array of unconventional fillings in empanada form adds depth to the menu, but is poorly executed. Fortunately, you don’t have to order the non-traditional empanadas, and you shouldn’t. Stick to what they do best. They don’t do drinks well either. Keep it simple and ask for “just water.”

Empanada Mama (site) ★★★★☆
763 9th Ave (between 51st St & 52nd St) map
New York, NY 10019
Neighborhoods: Hell’s Kitchen, Midtown West, Theater District

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