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In the Spanish-speaking neighborhoods of Queens, empanadas are everywhere. Literally “covered in bread,” an empanada at its most elemental is made from dough that is folded over a filling, sealed and then baked or fried.

This basic recipe gives rise to innumerable variations. All-purpose wheat flour is a common foundation for empanada dough, but the dough might feature cassava, corn or plantain flour instead. The fillings are generally savory, but sweet fillings are not unusual; guava paste and cheese is one familiar combination. The largest menus we’ve come across in Queens include several dozen different empanadas.

Wrapping dough around a filling, of course, is a common practice in many cultures, and we might argue that Dominican and Puerto Rican pastelitos, or Brazilian pasteles, could be considered empanadas, too. We might even make a case for Bolivian salteñas, despite their soupy fillings.

For this roundup, however, we’ve limited ourselves to empanadas that are called by that name – we have more than enough to choose from – and that were freshly cooked. Here are a handful that we’ve enjoyed, indoors and out, while snacking our way through Queens.

To our knowledge I Love Paraguay, in Sunnyside, is the only restaurant in the city featuring food from that namesake country, where the cuisine combines influences from the Spanish and Guaraní, one of the indigenous peoples of the area with significant populations in Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay. Whenever we visit, we’re always at least momentarily distracted by the sweets on display. We love the pastafrola, a lattice-topped fruit tart, and we’re very fond of the sandwich cookies, plump with dulce de leche, called alfajores.

The empanadas, however, are never immediately in sight; they’re cooked to order. Ours, upon arrival at the table, has a classic empanada appearance: a flattened half-moon, the curved edge tightly crimped, the wheat-flour shell fried a golden brown. Beef, chicken, spinach, and ham-and-cheese are among the possible fillings, but here the lining of the serving basket has been hand-labeled to indicate a particularly luscious option: tender hearts of palm.

Labels are one way to distinguish outwardly identical empanadas, and they work quite well – as long as the cook is not distracted. Another solution, employed at La Roja de Todos, in Corona, is literally baked in: different dough shapes or folds signify different fillings. As fashioned by this Chilean kitchen, the iconic empanada de pino is all points and angles; these are evident even after we’ve sliced it open.

“Pino” is reportedly derived from a word in Mapuche, a language still spoken in some parts of Chile and Argentina, for “pieces of cooked meat.” If the reports are true, that name sells it short. The rendition at La Roja de Todos combines not only beef, onion and hardboiled egg but also, to our delight, both black olives and raisins.

In contrast, our empanadas de verde at El Guayaquileño, in Elmhurst, seemed almost spartan. El Guayaquileño is one of four Ecuadorian trucks, kept company by perhaps a half-dozen carts, all of them clustered near the busy Junction Blvd. station of the 7 train. At temporary outdoor tables, families and friends gather around well-freighted bowls of fish soup and piled-high plates featuring various meats that might be grilled, stewed, roasted or fried.

Our trio of empanadas, on the other hand, were wrapped in a shell prepared from mashed unripe plantain – unripe as in green, the “verde” of empanadas de verde – and filled only with a mild, soft queso Ecuatoriano, similar to mozzarella but not as salty. The sole adornment was a small helping of onion and tomato that provided acid to balance the cheese. It’s a simple combination, evidently fine-tuned over many years.

Empanadas Sabor Venezolano, in Jackson Heights, is a newcomer – one of multiple newcomers, in fact, whose Venezuelan immigrant proprietors arrived in Queens earlier this year and quickly set up food stands along Roosevelt Ave. At least two of these vendors prepare pepitos, grilled-beef sandwiches that each might feed a family of four.

Although Empanadas Sabor Venezolano does not serve sandwiches, its featured menu items are uncommonly hefty themselves. The fried shell of our empanada swaddled not only beef and cheese but also beans and plantain, almost as if a main course and side dishes were wrapped up in one convenient handheld meal. We ate ours on the go, but if we’d taken advantage of the canopied seating beside the stand, and then rested both elbows on the table to support the weight of our empanada, no one would have blinked an eye.

Whether baked or fried, empanadas in Queens rarely sport a whole-grain shell. Even at Empanadas Cafe, in Corona, where on our most recent visit the menu board listed 18 varieties, only one is whole grain – but it’s a beauty, inside and out.

At this Colombian cafe, the chicken-and-cheese empanada is encased in a shell made from bulgur wheat (more traditionally used in the Dominican Republic in what are known as “quipes”), which lends a nutty texture and flavor that stands up wonderfully to the richness of the filling, and to the accompanying hot sauce. The empanada is daintier than some – indeed, much of Empanada Cafe’s business consists of assembling assorted platters of even-daintier patties for catered events. Yet they were perfectly content to cook a single empanada just for us, and as we ate it while leaning on a rail outside, we were content, too.

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Dave Cook

Published on October 19, 2023

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