Starch makes for one lovely food vessel. Pork soup can be trapped inside of a dumpling, Vietnamese charcuterie can be stuffed into a French baguette, and in Argentina, a seemingly limitless number of ingredients can be surrounded by pastry, then baked or fried. Many countries have their own version of the empanada, but the Argentine variety is probably the most well known in Los Angeles. With that in mind, today's food fight pits two different beef versions against each other, seeing which will emerge victorious.
Empanada's Place has been around since 1985, serving a wide and diverse selection of both meat and vegetarian empanadas. They actually carry a few beef options, including the arabe, a mixture of ground beef and lemon juice. But the criolla was our combatant of choice, the one that always feels like the house special -- containing ground beef, chopped hard-boiled egg, and raisins. Some critics will bemoan that it isn't baked, but meat wrapped in pasty and deep fried is not, we assure you, ever too bad a thing.
Biting into the criolla when it arrives fresh to the table should be done with caution, as the scalding, juicy contents have been known to leave a wake of casualties in the form of burned lips and stained t-shirts. The raisins are re-hydrated in the saucy liquid, giving the dish a plump, fruity accent. Combined with the savory beef, and the soothing effect of the the hard-boiled egg, it makes for an undeniably enjoyable snack. The accompanying thin, spicy salsa gives a pleasant kick as well.
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Carlitos Gardel is a very different place. With a $39 rib-eye, a $19 steak sandwich, and a decently sized wine list, it is not exactly a blue collar lunch spot. They do have a $24, 3-course lunch prix fixe though, which comes with enough food to satisfy two ordinary appetites. Thankfully, the empanadas are priced reasonably enough ($3), with three available fillings: beef, chicken, and spinach. The beef came fried as well, with a simpler filling, though one augmented with a strong presence of chopped green olives. The flavor of the beef itself was a bit less layered, and the crust was flakier, though didn't seem to hold its form quite as well. The chimichurri served alongside didn't create quite as pleasant a counterpoint either. Gardel's dish, unfortunately, simply came up just short in a few key categories.
So Empanada's Place is indeed the better of the two, winning on points rather than a knockout, though it is probably for the best. Empanadas, after all, do seem more enjoyable when consumed without tablecloths.
Empanada's Place: 3811 Sawtelle Boulevard, Mar Vista, (310) 391-0888., Carlitos Gardel: 7963 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (323) 655-0891.