An Argentine gentleman I used to work with packed his calabash gourd so densely with yerba maté every morning, the sound of him drawing tea through the dented steel bombilla was audible in the next room. This was the first of perhaps five daily doses; the sack of maté rarely left his desk. So acclimated were his basal ganglia to this alkaloid rinse that he never appeared perturbed. If anything, he was more serene when taking the native Argentine infusion. This was also the man who gifted me a sachet of coca leaf tea. It may as well have been a packet of Lipton's, save for the green envelope and the single printed ingredient: 100% hoja de coca.
These anecdotes are presented as a measure of the man's Argentine credentials. He and his two countrymen, with whom I spent many years in the advertising pit mines, cursed the Brazilian national futbol club and adored the output of Empanada's Place, the tiny, haywire empanaderia that's been a Venice Boulevard fixture for 25 years. EP's turnovers are fried rather than baked, and here claims of authenticity matter. So much blogosphere invective has been levied in the battle over baked versus fried, each camp impugning the other's culinary rigor. With the debut of Nonna's upscale baked models a few miles east, the debate will only become more entrenched.
For its part, the Argentine ad contingent confirms that both methods render a valid empanada–and you would be foolish to dismiss either one. At Empanada's Place the savory filled pastries seems to vault directly from the fryer to the table, their shells stippled with bubbles from the hot oil and gleaming like a thrice-glazed ham. Where the yeast-rich dough is thin it's nearly translucent and as flaky as baklava. Where it's double-thick and crimped at the edges it snaps like cordwood. The hamantash-shaped Arabe empanada bleeds lemon juice, a piquant counterpoint to the beef and tomato filling. The Papa con Queso is nearly large enough to serve as an Oscar night clutch. Its payload of cheese and potato homogenize into a warm, indulgent mass–a jelly doughnut fantasizing about being dinner. The Pascualina spinach empanada, layered with mozzarella and parmesan is effectively a deep-fried calzone, while the Criolla resembles a New World piroshki, sweet, sauced beef studded with raisins and chopped egg, expelling jets of oregano-laced steam the moment its breached.
Find the time to eat in at Empanada's place, despite the take-out friendly menu. There is a Latin corollary to the Cantonese dictum of wok hay, or breath of the wok, at play in the miniscule dining room. Heat, skillfully applied, imbues food with with an intangible vitality that lingers only a few minutes after it leaves the kitchen. Your to-go order will be fine, but it won't respire like the one you eat at the table, singing with heat and aromatics and oil. You'll probably scorch the roof of your mouth, but there's always dulce de leche alfajores to numb the wound.
Empanada's Place: 3811 Sawtelle Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90066; (310) 391-0888.