Empanadas will always hold a special place in my heart. Back in the summer of 2011, a few months after my college graduation, I headed out into the world alone for the first time. A fresh faced 22-year-old seeking a change, I found a place I loved and built a life there, in Buenos Aires. I found an apartment and a job. I bought coat hangers for the first time and hung my clothes in a foreign closet. I found hobbies and I volunteered. I learned the language. I learned the slang. Eventually I found friends. I had boyfriends and ex-boyfriends. I took day trips out of the city, weekend excursions out of the country and returned to an apartment that felt like a home. My job as an English teacher didn’t pay too well and after a few months my all-powerful, star-spangled US dollars started to dwindle. I reluctantly abandoned the steak joints, the pints of dulce de leche ice-cream, late-night deliveries. I switched from cocktails and wine to fernet and beer. And I found the empanada.
The baked little pockets of dough stuffed with steaming meat, corn or creamy veg warmed me up on cool autumn days. One or two were substantial enough to fill me for hours, yet they cost only about 4 pesos (at that time, roughly USD$1.00). I quickly learned the shapes of the various pastry folds and how they indicated the filling inside. I chose favorites (chicken, spinach, ham and cheese) and least favorites (humita, tuna, meat with olive). I learned that empanadas from Salta are fried and that baked ones come buttery or dry. And when I asked around I realized that pretty much everyone I knew had a favorite spot. My friend Lauren’s was Amelia’s; my ex-boyfriend’s El Cuartito. Mine became El Sanjuanino.
Since Buenos Aires I’ve lived in several cities and built distinct lives in each one. In Hong Kong char siu bao (pork buns) came to replace empanadas. In Barcelona now that cheap and comforting snack is a sobresada sausage stuffed croissant from Café Mercé downstairs. But when I pass an Argentine empanada joint and see mounds of doughy pockets and Havanna alfajores I feel the nostalgia set in hard. I remember those flaky, warm bites of my daily empanadas, those very first bites of adulthood and independence.
In Barcelona I’ve found my go-to empanadas, though this article is not about that place. It’s about a restaurant named El Laurel in Sant Antoni on Carrer de Floridablanca across the street from Cinema Renoir. I went there with the love of my life a few weeks ago to grab a bite to eat before watching a film. It’s an Argentine restaurant with a small bar at the front and a larger dining room in the belly of the building. There’s a full menu that includes steaks, the Argentine cuts: entraña, vacío, matambre. There’s milanesas done this way and that, as well as a varied selection of pastas, pizzas and salads. But by the front bar there’s only one part of the menu that gets attention. El Laurel offers artisanal empanadas, some gourmet and some classic ones. There’s tuna, meat, onion and corn. But there are also colorful ones, whose dough is dyed green with spinach, yellow with carrot, red with beetroot. These are filled with creative combinations such as plums, bacon and cheese or duck, pears, pine nuts and leeks. We tried one with aubergine and squash along with an excellent blood sausage empanada.
Our favorite by far was La Negrita, a little black empanada with cuttlefish ink in its dough. The filling is a gooey mass of mozz with tender bits of cuttlefish and tomato running through it. Though texturally the seafood gets a bit lost in the pillow of melted cheese, the marine flavor of the cuttlefish shines through quite strong and is balanced wonderfully with the clean, herbal punch from fresh basil. The dough is buttery, brittle and flaky; collapsing in on itself before yielding forth the steamy hot filling. Although the ink adds more in terms of color than flavor, the almond slivers sprinkled over the top provide a slight toasty flavor along with a fantastic crunch.
As I’m not a fan of movies dubbed to Spanish, I will be back to Renoir for the Hollywood spectacles shown in their original English. And I know where I’ll eat my pre-movie snack or post-movie dinner. It’ll be at El Laurel, the sweet little Argentine joint across the street.