I hadn't been an empanada fan, always finding them to be chewy pastry with scant filling, but the Chilean version was a revelation. The pastry was the perfect flaky container for marvelous meats, cheeses and vegetables.
Eight of us were barreling down a back road in central Chile singing "Why, why, why, Delilah?" at the tops of our lungs after a day of wine tasting in the Maipo Valley. We were heading back to our hotel when our tour guide, Oscar, suggested we stop for take-out empanadas.
He knew the perfect place. It was like a roadside McDonald's except they made and sold only empanadas. The place was jammed and there were three men in the parking lot directing cars to available spaces. Oscar came back with a heaping box of the most heavenly empanadas.
Like pasta in Italy and burgers in America, every region of Latin America has its own best-in-the-world recipes for making empanadas. Brazil has pastéis, Mexico pastes Pachuqueños, Ecuador empanadas de viento and Argentina the mouthwatering Mendocinas (empanadas from the Mendoza region), and every region of Argentina has its own variation.
I had been to Venga Empanadas in San Francisco's Mission District and was delighted when a second location opened late last year on Main Street in Redwood City. Argentine empanadas are baked, not fried, and Venga offers at least 18 varieties, both meat and veggie, along with a half-dozen homemade soups, crisp salads, desserts and Argentine specialty foods.
The three principals of the restaurant bring a variety of experience. Paula Capovilla is from Patagonia; Alicia Jimenez is from Mexico City; and Pablo Romano is from Argentina.
Romano said that in his younger days, he owned a campground/boat rental operation near the Atlantic coast. Nearby, he ran a roadside parrilla, a traditional Argentine iron barbecue grill. He is also an artist, graphic designer and musician.
It's that broad range of experience and entrepreneurial spirit that often coalesces into something delightful -- in this case, empanadas, although the original founder of Venga, Manuel Godino, has moved on.
My favorite empanadas at the new Redwood City outpost were the Argentine beef ($3.95) made with beef, onions, red bell pepper and hard-boiled egg. The savory aji gallina ($3.95) with chicken, onions, yellow bell pepper, tomatoes, parsley, cumin, saffron, chile flakes and cayenne pepper was spicy but not hot.
There are plenty of options for vegetarians, too. The California veggie ($3.95) was filled with spinach, Napa cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, raisins and almonds. The three-cheese-and-walnut empanada ($3.95) with mozzarella, blue and Monterey jack cheeses; onions; and caramelized walnuts was both creamy and crunchy.
On a cool day, the hearty vegan white bean soup came with white beans, onions, peppers, celery, mushrooms and tomatoes. The cold chunky tomato gazpacho soup is a must on warm summer days. All soups cost $6.25 for 16 oz. (enough for two).
The products at Venga on Main Street are made in a commissary five blocks away rather than trucked down from San Francisco. Not making products on the premises, though, can be problematic when particular flavors run low. One suggestion is to order ahead for pickup or take potluck when you arrive. Every empanada I tried was warmed to order, the soft and tender ingredients tucked inside a crisp, flaky coat.
If you dine at the restaurant, seating is limited, but there is wine, beer and sangria as a consolation and maybe you could sing, "Why, why, why, Delilah?"
822 Main St., Redwood City
Hours: Monday - Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5-8 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: beer and wine
Happy hour: no
Outdoor dining: no
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent