One awesome OC culinary development I would've never forecast in my years of reviewing restaurants is the rise of empanadas as a thing. Many a party I've been to this decade had empanadas as snacks alongside taquitos and cold wraps, meaning they're becoming part of OC's dinner table. And not just any empanada, but rather the Argentine variety, which always brings on the meat and is accompanied by chimichurri—the stronger on the garlic, the better.
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Empanada shops still aren't as common as, say, bánh mì spots, but they're spread across OC, from Anaheim to Mission Viejo, Lake Forest to San Clemente. And they all owe a big gracias to Empanada's Place. The mini-chain celebrated its 30th anniversary last year at its Culver City mothership; the Costa Mesa location is about to mark its own decade this year. From the start, the Gil family knew how to succeed by offering a galaxy of empanada choices that simultaneously appealed to mainstream and che boludo audiences alike. That way, Newport Beach housewives can nibble on savory beef and chicken types, while Argentines devour regional specialties such as salteñas, fugazzas (a take on Argentina's take on a cheese-and-onion pizza) and empanadas stuffed with cured eggplants. Regardless of choice, OC has always loved Empanada's Place's way of making them: huge (largest in la naranja), delicately fried and so substantial that two are more than enough. And for people who don't want to pig out? It sells tiny, cocktail party-sized ones, too.
With 18 styles of its namesake, you can eat at Empanada's Place's charming hole-in-the-wall or order for a company lunch for months and never tire. But don't ignore the sandwiches. Every bite into the milanesa unleashes crumbles that rain down like an ethereal tempura; the lomito is a Philly cheesesteak by the Río Plate. It even sells Argentine tamales—the only place in OC that stocks them, I believe. Dine in, order out, doesn't matter: Next time you bite into a steaming-hot empanada, raise a yerba maté gourd to the maestros who made you crave them in the first place.
Empanada's Place, 3011 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 825-0100; empanadasplace.com.