I've got a soft spot for empanadas. We called them pastels in Indonesia when I was growing up, half-moon pockets of goodness complete with the crunchy braided edges you saved for last, a belly filled with something savory, and a shape like a smile. My mom would take hours making them, rolling flat the dough she made with egg, flour and butter, then cutting out circles with an upturned soup bowl. She'd tuck a mix of glass noodles, peas, chicken and diced hard-boiled egg into the fold, then pinch the edges one over the other to form the braids before she fried them to a golden brown. I loved eating them not just because they were delicious, but also because unlike wontons and egg rolls, whose wrappers can be store-bought, empanadas had to be handmade from the ground up. The only shortcut she'd allow would be to crimp the edges with a fork if she didn't have much time.
The empanadas of my youth weren't unique to Indonesia, or even the Philippines, where they're packed full of chicken and raisins. Just about every South American country touched by the Spanish has a version. But when you think of an empanada here in the States, it's almost always the Argentine savory version or the sweet Mexican type. Up until a few months ago, there were two specialists of the former: Empanada Man in Lake Forest and Empanada's Place in Costa Mesa, both from the country where there are dedicated empanada festivals and fierce debates as to whether the fried empanadas from the province of Salta that the Bolivians pass off as salteñas are superior to the baked ones of Tucumán.
Now there's the Empanada Maker, newly opened in Mission Viejo. Conceived by Cameron Davis, an American who lived in Argentina for a few years as a teenager, the Empanada Maker looks to be entirely thought through. Every detail you can think of is in place. It wouldn't surprise me if Davis' ultimate plan is to turn it into a franchise. When you enter, apart from the deep-purple and rust-red walls that look as though a kid with a Pee-Wee's Playhouse obsession picked out the paint, you notice the heat-lamp display case in which the empanadas are kept warm. Since all the empanadas look exactly the same, when you order a few to be packed up in a pizza box, you wonder how you'll ever tell them apart. Davis has the answer even before you ask. He'll point out the small number embossed near the edge of the dough that corresponds to a place on the menu.
There are 12 kinds in all. The first six are reverentially flavored empanadas he calls “Originals,” each selling for $1.99. The rest are “The Specialties,” sold for 50 cents more. If you require some sort of dipping sauce, Davis offers about six homemade concoctions in thimbles for 79 cents. None of the empanadas need sauce, but if you had to, the homemade cilantro cashew has the herby kick of Peruvian ají and the thickness of guacamole. Meanwhile, the Parmesan concoction he's made can conceivably turn any pasta into Alfredo. The best sauce is a marinara that burns hotter than salsa, and the weakest sauce is actually the one that's Argentine: a chimichurri that kind of disappears into the background if you poured it onto one of the bolder empanadas such as the chile verde.
There's an Asian shrimp empanada with bits of crunchy water chestnuts that bleeds a syrupy teriyaki sauce as sticky as marmalade, and a Philly cheesesteak that's right on the money with its own Cheez Wiz ooze. In the four-cheese empanada, mozzarella provides actual resistance to your bite, as though you were eating an insolent blini. The spinach empanada tastes like a spanakopita, and a veggie with cubed zucchini seems as though you're jumping into a ratatouille Hot Pocket. For traditionalists, there's the very-well-made white-meat-chicken-filled empanada with potatoes that's perfumed with a light touch of cumin. It's almost as good as the ground beef with hard-boiled eggs and olives. All have one thing in common: a flaky, dense, buttery baked pie-crust cocoon that tastes as though someone's mom hand-rolled it.
Two empanadas are usually enough for a light lunch, especially if you pair them with a side of the deviled-egg potato salad that exhibits the color and richness of the yolks blended into it. Even better is the chimichurri rice, a fluffy, oily, herby thing that could be the basis of another restaurant on its own. And for dessert: fried empanadas filled with cubed apples and slathered with homemade caramel sauce. It didn't remind me as much of my mom's pastels as it recalled another fond childhood memory: when McDonald's used to deep-fry its apple pies.