Sunday, August 4, 2013

Legit Hot Pockets: Empanada Mama

TL;DR: ★★★★

Love their clean, flavorful and overall delicious dishes (empanadas and others) but not the long wait and cluttered, tight space. Worth going, though, for the good value and authentic Latin-American food.

Food: ★★★★★
Ambiance: ★★

Staff: ★★★

Price: $ 
Number of visits: 2

9th Ave. & 51st St. 

Who the hell doesn't like empanadas? They're little fried-dough pockets of meat, cheese and veggies. What's not to like? 

Empanada Mama is also one of the popular places I've heard so much about, and I can safely say that it definitely lives up to the hype food-wise. At first glance, the menu can be a bit overwhelming as they have a lot of empanada choices (including dessert ones), plus some tapas, arepas and entree-sized dishes. But since they claim to be the mother of empanadas, both times I was here, I turned to the page with all of the empanadas and folded back the rest of the menu to try another time — that cut my options down from 200 to, like, 185 (OK, so I tend to exaggerate...).

So, here's a breakdown of the four empanadas I tried last time (split them with a friend — I don't have a black hole in my stomach, don't worry). I'll go from my favorite to least favorite:

Viagra (wheat flour, $3.00)
Among the empanadas, this one stuck out to me the most not only because of its name (hehe) but also because it is filled with "mama's seafood stew with shrimps, scallops, and crab meat." This one was a no-brainer for me; I had to get it. 

AND THERE WERE NO REGRETS. Viagra is definitely the best: The big chunks of seafood — and it's real seafood, none of that imitation crap — are very succulent and have a great bite to them. They're drenched in a very light and subtle sauce (really hard to describe, had major struggs trying to figure out the taste just now ... slightly lemony is all I can come up with) that goes perfectly with the seafood. Viagra's also the most expensive empanada on the menu, but it's only, like, 20 cents more, so come on, loosen up the purse strings a little (says the biggest cheapskate in the world, heh).

Chorizo (corn flour, $2.65)
Next up is chorizo: "ground pork sausage with classic Latin herbs and spices." If you read my Nai Tapas Bar post, you'll know that I'm a fan of chorizo (yes, this is a subtle advertisement telling you to go look at my past posts), and this empanada did not disappoint. It's probably one of the simplest ones on the menu, but that absolutely does not mean that it's boring or bland in any way. I really liked the kick of spice (just enough spice — won't burn your mouth) from the meat juxtaposed with the milder, but also really good, corn flour. The corn flour was also a nice switch-up from the wheat flour empanadas (I had this one last).

Viagra and Brasil

Chicken & Broccoli Teriyaki (wheat flour, $2.70)
This one, which is just how it sounds, "pieces of chicken breast sautéed with a teriyaki sauce and broccoli," was definitely a gamble. I hesitated to order this at first because, well, who gets teriyaki at a Latin-American restaurant? It just seemed so wrong. To my pleasant surprise, however, this was pretty good! The teriyaki wasn't overpowering or too sweet, and it had an even mix of chicken chunks and broccoli. I actually thought the slightly sweet empanada was a good change from the salty and spicy flavors from the other ones we ordered.

Brasil (wheat flour, $2.80)
I had high expectations for this one, maybe because it seemed like one of the more authentic ones, but it actually wasn't as great as I thought it was going to be. Brasil, "traditional Brazilian style empanada with ground beef, olives, sauteed onions, and potatoes," sounded amazing but was a bit dry (which I guess I should've expected because of the potatoes) and not as flavorful as I would've hoped. It didn't taste too different from your regular taco meat — though it was a lot less greasy — and there was nothing that really floored me. I'd probably pass on this one next time.

Chorizo and Chicken & Broccoli Teriyaki (on a very messy plate)

Along with the four empanadas, my friend and I shared the Yuca Frita ($7.25), which we found under "Tapas." Yuca, which is some kind of a starchy root, has a very interesting texture; I would say it's a cross between a potato and banana/plantain. The deep-fried yuca had a very mild flavor, which is why it came with a (HUGE) side of guacamole. The yuca was fried to pretty much perfection: crispy and crunchy on the outside and starchy (but not necessarily soft) in the middle. The guacamole was also quite good and creamy, but I wished that it be a little more flavorful just because the yuca itself was mild. The guacamole, while it had a great taste of smooth avocado, could've had more spices and/or chunks of veggies added to it to make the dip a bit more interesting, IMO. 

Yuca Frita

Nevertheless, I highly, highly ordering recommend this one along with some empanadas. For two people, the portions were almost just right (we had some of the yuca left over because they seriously gave us SO much). 

OK, a few more short notes about Empanada Mama:

  • Unfortunately, because it is so popular, the wait is usually really long, and there's no waiting area. Literally, people have to hover over seated customers if they want to wait inside. BUT, the last time I was here, we were miraculously seated right away! I would suggest going during lunch time or at an unconventional dining hour.
  • The space is tiny. There are only about 6 or 7 tables (a couple more outside) and bar-type seating along the left wall. When you are seated, you're bumping elbows with the people at the next table.
  • The staff is meh. Last time I was here, it was pretty difficult to get our server's attention. Other times, I've been lied to repeatedly about our wait time — we were told 20 minutes every time we asked and ended up giving up and leaving after about 40 minutes.
  • And to end on a more positive note, they're open 24 hours! Pretty cool. And they deliver! Though I'm sure not all the way to East Village... 

Despite the few minor issues, though, I'll definitely keep Empanada Mama in mind whenever I'm in the mood for some cheap, authentic Latin-American food. 

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