I can’t recall the ungodly hour that a delivery person brought me my first “Viagra” from Empanada Mama, an almost-24-hour Latin diner whose arepas I sometimes find half-eaten on my mattress the next morning. What I can affirm, however, is that I patronized the Hell’s Kitchen mainstay for at least two years before accidentally (or drunkenly) ordering the deep-fried seafood pie, whose clickbait-y name recalls pharmaceutical commercials starring silver-haired men with overactive eyebrows.
At a venue that serves such strikingly nourishing and affordable fare, much of it informed by the diverse culinary traditions of Colombia, one would’ve hoped for a more PG-rated title for what turns out to be one of the city’s most remarkable shellfish dishes.
The craggy wheat-flour shell flaunts a golden deep-fry hue. The exterior glistens, then steam releases when you pull apart the savory pie. Nickel-sized crustaceans spill out into the wax-paper wrapper. Each bite of crab stick conveys a wallop of oceanic sweetness, while the tiger shrimp exude a more mature littoral punch; the flavor is closer to that of a majestic crevette royale prawn than a steakhouse appetizer. The restaurant refers to this concoction as “mama’s seafood stew,” a questionable familial hat tip for a dish named after an erection pill, but regardless, it’s the type of calibrated flavor combination one would pay $20 for at a sit-down gastropub. Here, it’s available until the wee hours of the morning for just $4.25. It is very, very good.
The fact that you can order the Viagra empanada — or a pile of smoky chicharrones — at 3:30 a.m. is a point worth meditating on.
As the pandemic ravages every aspect of the city’s hospitality industry, struggling institutions like diners are facing a particularly tough operating environment. Under state regulations, these third places between work and home — venues where one can swing by for cheap fare and reliable company at all hours of the day or night — must end sit-down service by 10 p.m. This means waiters, nurses, doctors, and others have to seek their post-shift restaurant nourishment via takeout, a complicated reality as many late-night venues can’t afford to stay open once their dining rooms shutter for the night.
One of the inconveniences of COVID-19 is hungrily trekking over to your favorite 24/7 diner, bodega, supermarket, or deli only to encounter a dark room and a locked set of doors.
When other places are closed, however, Empanada Mama is usually open. It is, to be sure, important for other reasons. It is a rare Colombian diner in Manhattan, an important part of the Hell’s Kitchen Latin food scene, and an affordable place to eat a full meal in an overpriced city. But as the novel coronavirus keeps nearby spots operating at limited hours, Empanada Mama’s indomitable late-night way of life makes it all the more vital, letting it serve a fantastic array of traditional South American dishes alongside wacky empanadas — including ones stuffed with pepperoni pizza toppings, Buffalo chicken, or Nutella — to throngs of good people day and night.
The restaurant, located on 53rd and Ninth Avenue, currently stays open until 5 a.m. for takeout and delivery. One can drop by at 4:15 a.m. for a quick cafe con leche and a bowl of Colombian sancocho, a hearty soup thickened with the starches of cassava and the gelatins of oxtail. It tastes of beef, salt, and nuclear-powered cilantro. The appropriate empanada pairing is effectively a composed cheese course: a sweet-salty affair stuffed with stretchy mozzarella and oozy guava jam.
Those who sneak in before 10:00 p.m. can grab an outdoor table and put in for a spicy chicken arepa, a mass of chile sauce-slathered meat. The earthy cornmeal patties that sandwich the stew only marginally quell the fire, which singes the tongue and smolders in one’s belly. Better help is a fragrant and milky guava shake, scented like a cross between bubblegum and strawberry. Its cooling froth ices one’s insides, allowing for more self-imposed pain while climbing up the Scoville scale.
Rising labor and real estate costs endangered New York’s diners long before the pandemic began; a 2015 Crain’s article cites a 60 percent decline in their numbers over the previous quarter century. But Empanada Mama’s status as a late-night Latin spot makes it part of an even rarer breed south of 96th Street.
Throughout the city, it’s not uncommon for diners — or like-minded venues — to reflect either the neighborhood or New York’s inherent internationalist ethos. One thinks of East Village Ukrainian diners like Veselka, which have long served pierogies and blintzes alongside omelets and burgers. There’s also a growing class of young operators who have endeavored to reimagine the diner in a more globalist fashion, like Samuel Yoo with his Korean-tinged Golden Diner in Two Bridges, or Ann Redding and Matt Danzer with their lovely Thai Diner in Nolita. And residents of Northern Queens, Upper Manhattan, and the South Bronx are lucky to have an excellent array of fine cuchifrito joints and other after-hours Latin counters.
But late-night Midtown diners, located in what so many tourists believe to be the heart of the city, have been slower to keep pace with the city’s changing demographics — which have been apparent for quite some time. These venues tend to showcase a specific European-American variety of affordable comfort fare. Think: Belgian waffles, open-faced turkey sandwiches, and gritty chile con carne that’s been sitting around too long. This culinary reality is particularly incongruous in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood that has boasted strong, yet oft-overlooked Latinx populations since at least the middle of the 20th century.
Hell’s Kitchen is no longer the Puerto Rican stronghold it was in the 1940s, but nearly 20 percent of residents identify as Hispanic or Latinx, making them the neighborhood’s largest demographic group after white people. Socrates Nanas, a Greek American who founded Empanada Mama with his childhood friend from Jackson Heights, Javier Garcia, serves that population well by channeling the energy of late-night Colombian diners, staying open long after the local Dominican or Cuban lunch counters have shuttered for the night.
Here’s the scene on a Friday at 8:45 p.m. As Justin Bieber (featuring Chance the Rapper) bops through the sound system, patrons fill every seat of the reduced-capacity dining room. Approximately 25 adults of all stripes and one toddler — in dresses, full suits, spandex, and athletic shorts — wait around for empty tables or pickup orders. A hard-boiled EMT stands next to me, maskless, puffing on their vape pen. A flat-screen monitor suggests patrons order a vodka Red Bull, the long-forgotten clubbing cocktail of the aughts. Patrons crowd the streetside alfresco area, a few tables cordoned off from the street via plastic jersey barrier; it’s not exactly a bespoke architectural operation (a few weeks later, the owners beautified their patio with custom carpentry).
Outdoor patrons nibble away on bright orange empanadas. The merigold hue means they’re made from corn, as they typically are in Colombia. They pack a denser chew than the wheat-flour variety and sport the complex flavor of a tortilla made with good masa de maíz. The resident chefs use these corn shells for traditional fillings, including a straightforward pile of seasoned ground beef or pulled chicken, scented heavily with sweet carrots and peppers. I don’t see anyone eating yucca fries, which is too bad because the Latin specialty is excellent, boasting a mild flavor that’s distinctly less earthy and vaguely sweeter than potato fries, with a texture that’s just a hint chewy. You dip them into a sweet guava sauce to counteract the coarse salt. Then you eat more.
A host informs me my order is ready, precisely 30 minutes after the pickup time on my email, which is predictable enough because the restaurant is almost always inevitably one half hour late when busy. In the 15 years since Empanada Mama opened, Nanas, who is now the sole owner, has expanded to the Lower East Side and, more recently, to Times Square. But the flagship — which closed for a year in 2016 following a devastating fire and moved one door over — remains jam packed.
Anyone who’s read any recent news about Hell’s Kitchen — a vital hub of the city’s LGBTQ scene and the place I call home — might reach the false conclusion that it’s a place where one wouldn’t feel safe going out for a late-night bite. “A Living Hell’s Kitchen: Local Residents Complain Neighborhood Overrun by Homeless” is how a recent Daily News headline sensationalized a very real problem. The three bylined reporters paint a lurid picture of the West Side, channeling a cross between a distorted Republican vision of Democratic cities and a pulpy 1970s crime flick.
Just the same, even a more empathetic New York Times column on outdoor dining and houselessness in Hell’s Kitchen frames its piece with a photo of an injured man in a wheelchair rolling on a pigeon-strewn section of the street. “The lunch scene along Ninth Avenue,” the sardonic caption reads.
It’s not surprising how, in a slice of Manhattan that sometimes feels a bit rough around the edges, a name like Hell’s Kitchen tends to attract cycles of gritty storylines, some of them exaggerated, reeking of NIMBY-esque privilege or evocative of a seedy, decades-ago reality. There is no shortage of larger-than-life tales about the West Side gang wars of the 20th century; any Google search inevitably turns up a “how Hell’s Kitchen got its moniker” origin story.
But when I see a Times columnist introduce my neighborhood as a “repository for social maladies,” including “strung-out junkies” (to be fair, that publication has put out more generous coverage since), I start to think about narratives that don’t get as much airtime. I think about how Hell’s Kitchen, in addition to being a relatively safe place to live — major crimes and petit larceny are down over 2019 — boasts one of the city’s finest collections of Latin American restaurants.
On any given day, one could swing by a family-run Ecuadorian restaurant slinging bolón mixto hash, a Dominican lunch spot selling superb morir sonando drinks, Mexican delis stuffing tortas with hot dogs, as well as ambitious taquerias, a Bolivian salteña stall, an Argentinian empanada shack, a modern Peruvian chicken joint, an Argentinian steakhouse, a Brazilian spot for good feijoada, a Brazilian all-you-can-eat grill, a cheap Cuban lunch chain, and a stellar Cuban dinner hangout with half-price mojitos where you could find me on any given pre-pandemic Thursday night.
In the mood for a classic Cuban sandwich? Guantanamera on Eighth Avenue makes a version stuffed with roast pork, salty ham, Swiss, tart pickles, and impossibly crusty bread. Empanada Mama’s version doesn’t come close, mysteriously omitting the ham on one occasion and supplementing its Swiss with mozzarella. That said, when it’s 3:30 a.m., the meaty, nourishing sandwich still tastes like a gift from the culinary gods.
The kitchen might also send out a reasonably dry arroz con pollo, and that’s okay, because diners are allowed to be just okay. Experiencing the pinnacle of a traditional preparation isn’t necessarily the point of a diner; the point is knowing that you can get something warm and hot that reminds you of home. For a lot of folks in Hell’s Kitchen, Empanada Mama does just that.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that a lot of the dishes are undeniably excellent. Few New York restaurants of any pedigree make a chicken soup as rich and studied as Empanada Mama’s. It packs a sharp kick of a cilantro, a modest poultry punch, and a texture that practically coats the tongue. Desayuno empanadas are quite good too; the kitchen stuffs soft eggs, cheddar, Colombian sausage, and steak into a crisp, doughy pastry. It is a fine Colombian riff on a Hot Pocket.
The traditional bandeja paisa, a Colombian national dish that juxtaposes Indigenous, Spanish, and African influences, easily functions as dinner for two, not a bad deal for $26. Every element is outstanding. Toothsome grilled skirt steak, packing a hearty chew, practically screams with garlic marinade. For chorizo, cooks use their knives to make indentations on the dorsal side of a chubby link, giving the upper half a firm chew while the bottom half remains soft and smoky. Chicharron — fried pork belly — would put any strip of Peter Luger bacon to shame; the fat chews like firm tofu while the hefty swine bursts with savory juices. If the meaty salts start to overwhelm at this point, turn to sweet maduros to cleanse the palate, or white rice, or heady black beans, or a crispy, oozy fried egg. And just because, there’s also a buttery arepa whose flavors recall movie-theater popcorn. Yep, it’s a lot of food.
Less than a mile away, at Hudson Yards, the vast majority of chic restaurants remain closed — or shutter early. Such is life in that self-proclaimed new heart of New York. But here on Ninth Avenue, Empanada Mama continues to chug along without the assistance of billionaire backers, helping to feed an entire neighborhood at all hours. Hell’s Kitchen might not always get the best press, but it sure knows how to take care of its crew.