Empanada isn't a very specific word in Spanish. It just means something enveloped in dough, something "em-breaded". It doesn't prescribe the filling, the shape or even the method of cookery. Beef Wellington would technically be an empanada, as would a deep-fried pig in a blanket.
Usually, though, when people talk about empanadas, they're talking about the Argentine snack of various fillings in a triangular dough which are fried (usually) or baked (sometimes), like turnovers.
This week's Dueling Dishes pits the triangular output of El Gaucho Market #2 in Anaheim against that of Empanada's Place in Costa Mesa.
Empanada's Place is the OC outpost of a storied old empanadería in Culver City. Our own Place sits in a plaza just across from Henry's, on Harbor just north of Baker. Empanadas are the star attraction and they sell eighteen kinds, all shaped differently so you can identify them: from the usual chicken and beef to unusual creations like empanadas árabes (stuffed with lemon-scented ground beef) and humitas (sweet corn and mozzarella).
Our order was one criolla (what Mexicans call picadillo, spiced beef with raisins), one cordobesa (beef with potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and olives), one pascualina (spinach with parmesan, mozzarella and white sauce), one broccoli (with parmesan and mozzarella, no white sauce) and one ricotta (with fresh mushrooms).
The empanadas, which sell for $2.99 each or $29.99 a dozen, are large, averaging about 6-7 inches across, and deep-fried. The winner of the Costa Mesa lineup was undoubtedly the criolla: soft, cinnamony beef, and the raisins offered a nice hit of sweetness in the middle of a cinnamony beef.
The cordobesa was a little less pungently spiced but had the addition of olives. One problem was that the olives had slid down to one end, so when the empanada was split, one person got all the olives and the other had none (and went "wee, wee, wee" all the way home).
The ricotta was very soft and smooth, but one side had a concentration of mushrooms that overwhelmed the delicate taste of ricotta. It would have been better to leave the mushrooms out and use a pinch of nutmeg to set off the milky richness of the cheese.
The clunker was the pascualina. Overwhelmingly cheesy, and the spinach was bitter and slimy, which contrasted badly with the fried empanada shell. The broccoli had some of the same problem, but the large chunks of vegetable helped it along.
Empanada's Place has a sleeper hit on their hands with the alfajores they sell across the counter: butter cookies as light as air and with the perfect amount of dulce de leche in the middle. I have no idea how they manage to keep them so light and soft, but I wanted more right away. El Gaucho #2 is an Argentine market with a great meat counter and a little sandwich counter off to the side. They sell five kinds of empanadas--ham and cheese, beef, chicken, tuna and spinach--and a whole host of sandwiches. Since the empanadas were only $1.25 each, I bought one of each.
El Gaucho's empanadas have a tender, buttery crumb. The star of their lineup is the spinach, which is mixed with ricotta and enough nutmeg that you know it's there, with the spinach chopped finely so that you're not dragging whole leaves across your teeth.
Beef and chicken had the same seasoning mix and aromatic vegetables; the beef was more tender than the chicken, which is perhaps not surprising given that some of the best beef in the world comes from Argentina. The chicken, for some reason, got cold very quickly after being cracked open.
Ham and cheese was chopped ham and mozzarella cheese. This would be a great substitute for those ham-and-cheese croissants (so greasy!) that every banh mi shop and half the doughnut shops in the county sell, but compared to the others it was not terribly exciting.
The clunker at El Gaucho was the tuna, with a heavily-fishy, oily overtone that seeped into the vegetables. This is the sort of thing you wouldn't want to eat at the office because of the oily fish smell.
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El Gaucho's alfajores, incidentally, are made up in LA and are crispy cookies with a slight anise taste and a heavy dusting of sticky powdered sugar. I like them a lot, but they aren't as ethereal as Empanada's Place's.
So who wins? Empanada's Place has a huge menu of interesting-sounding empanadas, a nice sit-down atmosphere with tablecloths, and gracious service, but some real misses in the empanada column, which confirms Gustavo's opinion of the place. El Gaucho's empanadas are much better, soft bread with crunchy edges, but you're seated at cafe tables while the staff watch huge televisions playing soccer day in and day out. This has to be about the food, not the surroundings: El Gaucho is the clear winner of this week's Dueling Dishes.
Empanada's Place, 3011 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa; (714) 825-0100. Tue.-Sat. 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Sun. 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., closed Mon.
El Gaucho Market #2, 847 S. State College Blvd., Anaheim; (714) 776-6400. Mon.-Sat. 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Sun. 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sandwich counter may open later than market.