Food Fight: Battle Empanadas

Categories: Food Fight

Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
Empanadas with a side of chimichurri sauce.
It's not often that we get so grossed out by a certain food item that we nearly immediately throw it in the garbage, walk away from the entire plate and go off to sulk angrily, our appetites lost for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, that very thing happened during the course of this week's Food Fight. But we're getting ahead of ourselves...

It having been a good two weeks since we were able to do the weekly Food Fight, we were eager to jump back into Houston's enormous culinary pool. Taking a tip from our friend Dr. Ricky, we kept this food fight on the ethnic side, but also on the affordable one.

Traditional Argentinean empanadas are one of our favorite foods, both as a mid-day or mid-morning snack (we're part Hobbit) or as a full meal. We really like any snack-size food pockets -- what's not to love about them? -- such as pierogie, Indian samosas, bánh xèo or kibbeh, but empanadas happen to be the most portable of the lot. The great thing about Argentinean empanadas -- as opposed to Tex-Mex-style empanadas -- is that they're baked, not fried, making them both healthier and easier to eat on the run. No grease here.

The other wonderful thing is that even traditional empanadas come stuffed with a variety of ingredients, making them an excellent option for our many vegetarian and pescetarian friends. Humita -- fresh corn with sauteed onion, peppers and spices -- is one of the most popular and enduring fillings, and happens to be our favorite. Spinach is also a traditional ingredient, but the heartiest empanadas are the gaucho-style stuffed with ground beef and hard-boiled eggs, or the jamon y queso, stuffed with thick chunks of ham and provolone cheese.

Manena's Pastry Shop and Deli, 11018 Westheimer

In our review of Manena's back in May 2009, we described how the sense of suddenly being in Buenos Aires hits you as soon as you walk through the door -- no longer in a dingy strip center, you're surrounded by cheerful yellow walls, CNN en Español, a pastry case full of alfajores and tiramisu, signs in Spanish and the happy chattering of expat Argentineans. It's like taking a brief vacation, if only during your lunch break. In short, we love Manena's.

Empanada de humita.
The empanadas are cheap here: $1.90 each, no matter which filling you choose. Manena's only offers a limited selection, but that's because the menu contains other Argentinean delicacies to choose from, and the selection that is offered is briefly yet divinely traditional. We chose the gaucho, the jamon y queso and the humita and settled into a wooden booth while we waited for our order.

Empanada de gaucho.
While the humita has always been our favorite, reminding us of the sweet corn casserole our mother used to make, the gaucho has been steadily gaining on it. And yesterday, it finally tied up the game. It was dripping with juices as we bit into one end, the mixture of beef, white onions, green onions and spices like cumin and paprika all humming together in one dusky, tangy symphony. The humita was as sweetly vegetal as always, while only the bland jamon y queso was a disappointment.

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