Not too long ago in the North Bronx, steps away from the final stop on the 1 train, I enjoyed one of the more technically astute and delicious meals I’ve had in recent memory. In a quiet section of Van Cortlandt Park, I found a nice bench and sampled a few empanadas from Claudy’s Kitchen, a Peruvian spot that opened last summer during the pandemic. To start, I devoured a powerfully porky chicharon empanada that felt as weightless as a Zalto wine stem. Then I moved onto a chorizo variety that carefully deployed its potatoes to keep the smokiness of the dried Spanish sausage in check. Finally, I tried an airy cinnamon apple variety that made me wish McDonald’s served a version like this across the country.
Empanadas, a dish whose name derives from the Spanish verb empanar (“to bread”), always make me quite happy.
My good colleague Robert Sietsema recently penned a beautiful ode to the sandwich, a foodstuff that he said was “our salvation” during the pandemic — due in no small part to the fact that it can be consumed standing up and without utensils. For this critic, however, the diverse empanadas of Latin America served the same function over the past year, feeding me when I was seeking a bit of culinary inspiration along with a dose of affordable nourishment.
Of New York’s classic foodstuffs, the empanada easily ranks among the most portable. Unlike certain burgers or tacos, it benefits from an assured sense of structural integrity. It doesn’t spill out the back when you bite it in the front. Its edible casing obviates the need for napkins. The empanada also benefits from its size and modularity; it is usually small enough to be eaten with a single hand, and if you’re suddenly full after consuming the first or second one, the third or fourth can be stored in the fridge with little deterioration.
What follows is an account of some very good empanada shops. Some are newer, like the Peruvian Claudy’s, the Colombian Salento, and the Argentine Criollas. The others, including the Ecuadorian Ñaña with its breathtaking plantain shells, have been around longer.
Chef Claudia Berroa and her husband, Richard Berroa, a former paramedic, have been selling their flan at Zabar’s, Union Market, and elsewhere for years. Last summer, however, the duo finally opened up their brick-and-mortar flagship in Fieldston, where they debuted empanadas ($3-$3.50) stuffed with classic Peruvian preparations like aji de gallina and chicharon. Keep in mind that these aren’t heat lamp empanadas; each one is baked to order and served immediately. That means when you chomp down on the lomo saltado variety — packed with chewy tenderloin and sweet onions — a jolt of sweet, beefy juices will squirt into your mouth and dribble down your chin.
Richard tells me that Claudia rolls the wheat dough thinner than what one might normally find in Peru, resulting in a crust that’s about as light as a wonton wrapper. This allows the essence of the fillings to come through with remarkable clarity; the casing around the chicharon variety is so delicate that it could almost pass itself off as a shumai dumpling. That soft pork belly exudes the clean, earthy funk of good swine, while a bit of vinegared onions keep the jiggly, marshmallowy fat in check. Claudia strives for balance with her empanadas; accordingly, the team provides hot sauce only upon request. One more thing: Just as one can, say, eat more pizza slices from a chef who uses a nimble, low-gluten dough, Claudia’s ultra-thin crusts allow the customer to consume three or four of her empanadas without feeling overstuffed. 5981 Broadway, near 242nd Street, Fieldston
When contemplating the city’s great bakery traditions, it would be remiss to overlook our fine Colombian panaderias, serving up hot cheese bread, strong coffee, and what I’ll argue are some of New York’s best doughnuts. Many of those fine venues are in Queens, but Salento, which Mariella Duque, Mysel Chica, and Pablo Castellanos opened days before the shutdown last spring, is an outlier in Washington Heights. The oat-milk-equipped coffee shop and restaurant also happens to serve excellent empanadas ($2.75). Unlike the thicker corn shells of, say, Empanada Mama, Salento employs a wispier crust with a lighter flavor, all the better to let a juicy filling of brothy chicken and soft potatoes shine through. A barista packs the hand pie with a thimble of salsa so green it appears radioactive; the liquid, spiked with pajarito chiles, imparts the dish with an intensely grassy, spicy kick. Consider pairing the snack-sized treat with a hot buñelo, a light-as-a-helium-balloon ball of cassava bread filled with salty cheese and an oozy smear of fragrant guava. 2112 Amsterdam Avenue, at 165th Street, Washington Heights
Hell’s Kitchen suffered a big loss when the pandemic shuttered two of the neighborhood’s most reliable South American spots: The Midtown outposts of Bolivian Llama Party and Arepa Factory. But if there’s a silver lining, it’s that Criollas has moved into the old Arepa space in the subterranean Turnstyle Food Hall. This is where the Buenos Aires-born entrepreneur Mario Vivas now sells some very good empanadas ($4.90). True to the Argentine style, cooks shape the delicacies into small half moons; they also sport crunchy braids on the spine. Vivas offers a traditional caprese version — a margherita-like blend of milky mozzarella and fresh tomatoes that tips a hat to the influence of Italian culture in this part of South America — as well as a classic malbec variety that’s probably the finest beef empanada I’ve tried recently. Vivas uses green olives, red peppers, onions, and leeks to perfume and counterbalance the grass-fed bovine oomph. Also for those who care about pastrylike flakiness, I’d rank the Criollas vegan dough at the top of that scale. Located in the Turnstyle Food Hall in the 59th and Columbus Circle subway station
The Legacy Players
Ñaño Ecuadorian Kitchen
Ecuador is known for its empanadas de viento, wheat puffs filled with cheese and sprinkled with sugar, as well as its empanadas de morocho, hand pies forged from white maize. But at Abel Castro’s Ñaño in Hell’s Kitchen, the chefs specialize in a type of empanada shell rarely seen in New York: one made from bananas. The kitchen mashes green plantains into a paste, stuffs them with mozzarella and queso fresco, then fries them to order, a process that can take up to 20 minutes. Rest assured: You’ll want to wait. This empanada de verde ($5), as it’s called, is flaky on the exterior, while the inside is pleasantly squishy and neutral; its texture channels that of a great knish. Stretchy, salty cheese spills out as you eat. Add a coarse dose of salsa, teeming with jalapenos and pickled red onions, to cool the heat and to balance out all the rich fats. If you’re staying for an outdoor lunch, be sure to try the seco de chivo, the traditional Ecuadorian stew of goat simmered in naranjilla, a citrusy nightshade. 691 Tenth Avenue near 49th Street, Hell’s Kitchen
The Peruvian Luna family opened the first branch of the Cuban Sophie’s not too far from the World Trade Center in 1997. Back when we all still went into offices, I’d swing by its New Street location (now permanently closed) to pick up a pork sandwich or a fried wheat empanada or two ($2.99). Workers stuff the small, flaky pies with ground beef or, even better, with a shredded pile of chicken. Tiny cubes of potatoes help break up the soft, savory, tomato-spiked flesh. The empanadas come with a side of cooling green sauce that contains such an atomic level of garlic it literally qualifies as a heat element. 76 Fulton Street, near Gold Street. Additional locations throughout the city
Bolivian Llama Party
One of the world’s great pleasures is waking up in the altitudinous city of La Paz, Bolivia — it’s more than twice as high as Denver — and giving your oxygen-deprived body a nutritious jolt with a salteña, the country’s drippy, soup-filled empanadas. Bolivian cuisine doesn’t have a big presence in the Big Apple, but the Oropeza Brothers — Alex, Patrick, and David — ensure that New Yorkers get to enjoy a steady supply of salteñas ($4.75-$5.75). The Sunnyside flagship of Bolivian Llama Party serves a stunning version of the savory hand pie, which is distinguished by its yellow hue (thanks to aji amarillo), its sugar-laced crust (almost as sweet as pastry), and its crispy spine. The salteña is chubbier than most empanadas; the fat body holds a bevy of hot jigote, or gelatinous stew, that melts into a drinkable liquid like a xiaolongbao when heated. Nibble at the top of the shell gently — if you break it in half it’ll spill all over your lap — and then slurp up the spicy, chickeny, dark-as-gumbo interior. Add a bit of spicy, cilantro-infused llajua to cool down the insides. 44-14 48th Avenue, near 45th Street, Sunnyside
I’ve had quite a few words to say before about this small chain of Latin diners, now run by the Greek restaurateur Socrates Nanas. One might be tempted to dismiss this place entirely, thanks to the presence of cheesesteak empanadas, Bombay empanadas, pizza empanadas, jerk-chicken-and-cheese empanadas, and something known as a viagra empanada, but that would be a mistake. Patrons who stick with the venue’s Colombian roots and sample the beef or chicken empanadas ($3.99-$4.24), however, will eat very well; the main event is the thick cornmeal crust, almost as dense as a Mexican sope with as much bright, masa-forward flavor. Though I’ll admit that the viagra wheat flour empanada, a flakier affair filled with crab stick and delicately cooked shrimp, has helped keep me fed during long pandemic nights. 765 Ninth Avenue, near 51st Street. Additional locations in Times Square and the Lower East Side
This Corona-based carniceria (butcher shop) and parrillada (grill) has been serving Corona for more than 40 years; the empanadas are at least one good reason why folks keep coming back. Order those hand pies from the butcher, who’ll heat them up and place them inside a foil-lined bag to keep things wicked hot. Both the beef and chicken versions are about what you’d expect from an Argentine empanada: A thin and flaky crust, with lots of red pepper and olive flavor to amp up the umami overtones. And while the beef version doesn’t sport the same powerful beefiness as at Criollas in Manhattan, more than a few folks would be willing to overlook that thanks to the lower price here ($1.99, versus $4.90 for the Manhattan analogue). 94-60 Corona Avenue, near Junction Boulevard, Elmhurst
This Peruvian chain that got its start in Rego Park is renowned for its tender pollo a la brasa, but it also serves darn good empanadas ($8 for two). The crispy, doughy shells hold weighty portions of shredded rotisserie chicken; they’re amped up with enough garlic, salt, and other spices to overwhelm the palate just a bit. Indeed, things almost get out of hand with the aggressive seasonings — until you bite into one of the plump raisins inside, which help tame the saline wallop. 62-30 Woodhaven Blvd, near Dry Harbor Road, Rego Park. Other locations in Jackson Heights, Hell’s Kitchen, Upper West Side, Mott Haven, and elsewhere
La Roja de Todos
Anyone who’s spent time in Washington, D.C., knows that the Julia’s chain purveys a weighty breed of Chilean empanadas. New York residents, accordingly, will be glad to know that the empanadas at La Roja de Todos are even bigger; in fact, they are among the largest I’ve ever encountered, with each pie approaching the size of a calzone. The resident baker stuffs his pies with a creamy blend of chicken, or a stewy mixture of beef, whole black olives, and slices of hard-boiled egg. If the flavors aren’t as nuanced as those of some of its peers — with a baked flour shell that’s more chewy and doughy than light and nimble — the empanadas make up for that in warming, delicious nourishment. For a spot of balance, try adding a bit of pebre, a coarse, fiery Chilean condiment that combines garlic, cilantro, vinegar, and red pepper chile flakes. 3311 108th Street, near Northern Boulevard, Corona