With Thanksgiving upon us, I have something a bit outside the norm to be thankful for. South American food is woefully underrepresented in Rochester right now, but along with the more established Espada (Brazilian) in Village Gate and Juan and Maria's Empanada Stop (Chilean), the Colombian-based Empanada Shop is one of a small selection of places that feature cuisine from that continent.
The food there is delicious, and the empanadas stand out both for their wide variety and solid execution. The chalkboard on the wall shows a roster of empanadas ($3.50 for 1, $15 for 5) that was 24 deep, with about half of them edging more toward traditional flavors and the other half toward more American tastes.
On our visit, the first impression when the empanadas came to the table was of the nicely fried exteriors covered in micro blisters. I'm not sure why these form, but what was obvious is that they add some delightful texture and that the crusts are crispy and chewy without being overly crunchy or greasy. This is a hard balance to strike, and these hit the mark.
Of the traditional flavors that my wife and I sampled, the chicken, shredded beef, and basura were our favorites. Each was balanced, although in completely different ways. The chicken was more simple, with enough onions to make you know they were there without overpowering the chunks of meat. Sweetness from plantains paired with the braised beef in a rich sauce walked the sweet and savory line in the shredded beef empanada.
"Basura" translates to "garbage," and true to form, it was a hodgepodge of ingredients, including ground beef, avocado, mofongo, and hard-boiled egg that didn't become muddied when put together. The pork and mango, unfortunately, edged too far toward the sweet side of the scale, and the steak and shrimp empanada was under-seasoned and didn't stand out.
On the less traditional side of things, the jalapeño chicken flavor had an assertive heat level from the pickled and fresh jalapeños, and I could absolutely see it as a perfect food after a long night out.
The Empanada Shop offers a number of items as dinners or as side dishes to accompany the namesake pockets. A large banana leaf-wrapped tamale ($10, $13.95 dinner) was stuffed with white corn masa and pieces of chicken and pork, along with potatoes and peas. This is a heartier version than the Mexican tamales you may be familiar with, and it's worth checking out.
A dinner of chiccarones, yellow rice and peas, and sweet plantains ($10.95) reminded me in many ways of those from Caribbean restaurants in town, but with more subtle flavors. The deeply scored pork belly was fried to an intense crunch and was best served by chopping it up and combining with the other ingredients into a mixed rice dish.
I was happy to see arepas on the menu ($2 each); they've been missing in town since the Hello Arepa! truck went off the radar late last year. Both the cheese-filled and the sweet versions were dense, flattened corn cakes with a crispy exterior; I could see them making interesting sandwiches at some point in the future. Less successful was the chicken kabob ($6), which was tender but ended up being too sweet and lacking the high-heat sear I love.
The service at the Empanada Shop is mostly counter based, but if you're eating in, manager Karin Aros will deliver the food to the table and help you ID which empanada is which. I enjoyed talking to her about what Colombian food had to offer and how much passion both she and the chef (her daughter) have for it. Although spare inside, the pastel tinged room is lit brightly and has made a nice transition from the departed Rosie's Hot Buns that closed last year. I was saddened to see the delicious food from Rosie's go, but what we have gotten instead is a go-to spot for empanadas and a great way to jump into a lesser known cuisine in Rochester.
You can read more from Chris Lindstrom or listen to his podcast on his food blog, Foodabouttown.com. Share any dining tips with him on Twitter and Instagram @stromie.