The Empanada Man

Photo by Sasha ContrerasThe empanada is Latin America's steaming retort to brunch: tiny turnovers eaten in pairs or triads as a snack; oven-baked and filled with any number of vegetables, meats and spices—they're the best gift the Spanish Empire left the New World after the mestizo. Most county Latino restaurants, however, offer them as mere appetizers, Dubyas to the Rummy that is the main menu. Not so at the Empanada Man, a cheery Lake Forest dive that boasts of its specialty not only through its name but also with a grinning empanada mascot holding out a platter of their namesake to prospective customers. Accept the simulacrum's cannibalism offer and come in.

Make sure to call ahead, though. Empanada Man prepares its eponym upon order, so it'll be a while before you can start debating whether to order a fourth or fifth one for the journey home. They make six types of empanadas here, and although all are roughly the same size and feature a flaky, sweetly tanned crust, the cooks construct each one with the meticulous care usually reserved for surgery or Faberge eggs. Each empanada carries a distinctive nub so that consumers know which flavor will soon enter their mouths. A chicken empanada, for example, features a bisecting knotted ridge that looks like a miniature Andes as it extends over the empanada's bloated top side. The slight green tint of the spinach choice distinguishes it from all others and almost looks like a grass stain on a baseball uniform. The beef variety, meanwhile, has a little tail at one end as if it were a zygote about to undertake mitosis.

Aesthetics are nice in considering food, of course, but taste and content are what ultimately counts, and Empanada Man doesn't disappoint. Both chicken and beef empanadas are mini-stews of joy, the meats moist and accompanied by corn kernels in the former, hard-boiled egg slices in the latter. The spinach and potato selections are the edible equivalent of Argentina's gold-medal-winning Olympic soccer squad: rough, earthy, at first unimpressive but ultimately a winner. And the tangy dance the ricotta cheese empanada stomps upon your palate is worthy of a Gardel croon.

Empanada Man being an Argentine restaurant, there is a smattering of Italian entrées as well—hefty gnocchi dumplings, pizzas that require a forklift to carry to your car, and 4x4 subs filled with such Argentine meats as the breaded-veal delicacy milanesa and choripán. There are no dessert empanadas, but forgive this sin quickly because Empanada Man stocks the delicious Marplatenses alfajor from the Garden Grove-based Keko's Foods. This confection alone—a crumbly, double-layered shortbread cookie with a center made from the caramel-like confection dulce de leche—is worth the 241 Toll Road-required drive to reach Empanada Man. It's a drive, yes. But when the scent of another empanada wafts from the oven, you remember why life in Orange County is as close to heaven as we'll get.

20761 Lake Forest Dr., Lake Forest, (949) 855-9257, www.empanadaman.com GARELLANO@OCWEEKLY.COM

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