A tale of two empanadas


Whether you are looking for a snack to go or a slow cooker to sit down and enjoy, two neighboring restaurants in Hamden have a common solution: empanadas.

‘Gourmet’ oxtail empanadas are one of Ibiza’s most popular small dishes, a Spanish tapas and wine bar on Dixwell Avenue.

Right across from Ibiza on Wheeler Street is the fast-food style cafe Grab & Go Empanadas, which offers around 20 different types of empanadas starting at $ 2 each.

The recipes, presentation, and philosophy behind the turnovers at the two restaurants may differ, but the mass appeal of empanadas as a staple comfort food holds true for diners in Hamden and beyond.

“Everyone wants empanadas”

“Everyone wants empanadas,” explained Lidier Barrantes, Ibiza’s chef, as he tossed some homemade empanadas into the deep fryer last weekend.

Sunday night Barrantes was busy making a seafood ceviche, grilled entrecote dipped in pepper sauce and crab cakes. When this reporter first asked how he made empanadas, he and his team were surprised: The restaurant specializes in complex paellas and serves several dishes that customers can’t find anywhere else in Hamden, like octopus with paprika and lamb ravioli.

However, Barrantes admitted that Ibiza’s two empanada options – chicken and beef – are at the top of the restaurant’s best hit list. During the pandemic, he said, empanadas were a great take-out option while other meals, like paella presented still very hot in the pan, could not survive transport properly. And nearby colleges and universities commission hundreds of Ibiza empanadas to host events.

Unlike other dishes that Ibiza cooks fresh to order, Barrantes makes around 300 empanadas each week before a regular week at the restaurant.

It starts with two different toppings. For the pulled chicken empanadas, the chef starts by boiling the chicken breast before adding it to the sizzling onions and green peppers. The meat and vegetables are then spiced with saffron, onion powder, cilantro, annatto, curry and cumin, which cook together for just twenty minutes.

Meanwhile, the beef stuffing involves slow cooking the oxtail for at least four hours with carrots and onion. Barrantes said the seasoning for this garnish is simpler; salt and pepper will do the trick.

The meats are then wrapped in pre-purchased dough, which is cut into circles, folded in half, and braided along the open edge to create an almost spherical carbon shell around the base ingredients.

Then on busy evenings like Sunday all that’s left for Barrantes and his cooks to do is bathe these frozen Spanish dumplings in boiling oil for three minutes – or until they reach. a deep golden brown.

The chicken empanadas are topped with a delicate drizzle of Barrantes mustard aioli and the beef ones with a classic remoulade sauce, which also uses a mayonnaise base but includes a hot sauce, Cajun seasoning and horseradish.

Next, the empanadas are served with a fresh side salad coated in a slightly bitter house dressing of parsley, honey, lemon, mustard, salt and pepper, and white vinegar (which this reporter would love to buy by the bottle).

While the dish is meant to be shared, much like tapas, it also works as a full meal for $ 10. Empanadas are almost bursting with richly flavored meats sprinkled with colorful vegetables. The exterior is crisp, but covers a layer of softer batter that bonds directly to the filling to create a holistic layering of textures.

Chicken empanadas are bright, light, and festive – the mustard aioli dissolves in the mouth while providing a sour counterpart to the buttery, flaky crust – while their oxtail tops are like a hot, stewed stew. together by sweet carrots which bring out the cinnamon. like notes.

Ibiza manager Jerry Scott, who is also a vegetarian, said the restaurant has experimented with cabbage empanadas, but their customers always come back for beef.

Their vegetable empanada always makes its way into special menus, he said. Barrates invented the recipe during Hamden Restaurant Week 2020, which this year ends on Saturday, October 2 (see featured restaurants here).

Scott said Ibiza has been participating in Restaurant Week for several years, virtually since its inception. Lidier Barrantes bought Ibiza from the former owners, who had been stationed at Dixwell since 2009 under the same restaurant name, four years ago alongside Cesar Arboleda and Jaime Lopez.

The three originally met while working at the Paella Tapas and Wine Bar in Norwalk. Prior to that Barrantes was chef at the French Cafe Rive Bistro in Westport. While Lopez still owns and manages the Norwalk restaurant, Ibiza is the first time Barrantes and Cesar, both chefs, have owned their own place.

That’s part of why, according to Scott, Ibiza chose to skip restaurant week this time around. After facing an existential crisis during the pandemic, it was their loyal customers who helped Ibiza get by.

Rather than focusing on attracting new customers or imagining new specials, like vegetarian alternatives designed to satisfy a wider consumer base, Scott said they wanted to celebrate the main dishes on the menu than their customers. regulars love it – and in turn, subtly express their gratitude to them. regulars.

“People really come for the food,” said Scott, despite the restaurant’s brand new bar area to the right of the central dining room. As long as they stay true to the quality and flavors their customers expect, Scott said he believes Ibiza has a long-term home in Hamden no matter what.

“Delicious food is a plus”

Meanwhile, Grab & Go Empanadas, a pandemic pop-up, is building its business on easy, affordable take-out food and a cozy, family-friendly atmosphere.

Coffee is the manifestation of Carlos and Claudio Quito’s long-term dream of owning a business together in the United States.

Carlos Quito, who has years of experience in the hospitality industry, is the restaurant manager while Claudio Quito acts as the main chef, whose partner, Diana Toledo, also cooks in the restaurant. All three emigrated to the United States from Ecuador in the 1990s.

Carlos Quito said that the philosophy of coffee is based on “keeping it in the family nucleus” and offering “the highest possible hospitality”. In his words, “delicious food is a plus”.

Along with sandwiches and breakfast all day, Quitos make what looks like millions of different empanadas: there’s chicken chipotle, philly cheese steak, salmon, shrimp, crab, spinach… and the list goes on.

Unlike Ibiza, which purposely organizes targeted foods for a target audience, Grab & Go is designed to give everyone who passes by their store a diet option.

Quitos said their restaurant is attracting many more and more Ecuadorian and Spanish-speaking residents of Hamden, who eagerly await the chance to eat traditional foods that were common in their home country – like sweet mozzarella empanadas. , a typical breakfast in parts of Ecuador – and to speak in their native language with the owners and employees.

Ultimately, Carlos Quito said they found a substantial and diverse local audience because “people love what we deliver: simple home cooking”.

“Simpler is much better,” agreed Claudio Quito, picking up shrimp from a piece of dough, patting it and placing it in the fryer. Two minutes later, the empanada was bagged and in the hands of a customer.

Grab & Go’s process is similar to Ibiza’s, but simpler, faster and on-site. Claudio Quito prepares the toppings a day in advance, to give them time to relax, and uses a common base for each empanada. This base is made up of oil, onions, adobo, cumin, liquid garlic, salt, pepper and “a secret ingredient”, which looks a lot like annatto.

The most popular empanadas are, as Ibiza reported, chicken and beef. After mixing the spices together, Quito adds the meat. On Thursday, this reporter watched him mix pieces of chicken breast together – 20 minutes later, when the filling was “just cooked”, it went to the refrigerator.

The empanadas are then sealed with a fork and tossed into the deep fryer, producing large, bubbly semicircles, unlike the smooth, baked braids that Ibiza offers. The Quitos stick the empanadas in a waxed paper bag with a cup of “special sauce”, made with tomatoes, onions, jalapeño and cilantro.

The result is juicy, generously portioned meat, wrapped in an unabashedly greasy, chip-like crunch. The sauce is much hotter than the Ibizan aioli, adding a sweet and sour sensibility to the more familiar flavors present in the empanadas themselves.

A Grab & Go empanada is a totally different experience than one in Ibiza. But competing products highlight a possible outcome of a big trend in the city: As the number of Hispanic and Latino residents continues to rise in Hamden, Hispanic and Latino chefs are making sure to develop representative restaurants to cater for a more. wide range of taste buds.

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