We all have favorite local businesses. I believe the best are those where we almost forget that buying and selling have anything to do with it, where we exchange something meaningful and the money that changes hands merely supports that exchange. Sometimes I describe such places with words like atmosphere, service, or quality. But my new favorite, Maria Empanada, reminds me that the key is the inexplicable chemistry of love—not mushy sentiment, but the love we feel when we share with others the simple pleasures that give us joy.
My husband and I have lived in Denver’s Platt Park for eleven years, and one of our favorite things to do is walk around and discover what neighbors are doing with their gardens and what neighborhood businesses are doing with their food. We were mourning the loss of Buffalo Doughboy Bakery on the corner of South Broadway and Louisiana, when Maria Empanada moved in a few months ago to mend our broken hearts. As the name suggests, the place specializes in empanadas.
When we first walked in, the aromas of delicate pastry dough, steaming espresso, fresh veggies, savory meats and cheeses, and dulce de leche blended in the sort of harmony we might expect in the kitchen of the most popular mom on the block. Maria is a mom, but she is not the owner. The owner is Maria’s daughter, Lorena Cantarovici, who moved to Denver, Colorado from Buenos Aires, Argentina some ten years ago. About three years ago, she realized her dream of bringing the memories of her mother’s kitchen to life in Lakewood. I’m grateful she outgrew that location, so now we can walk to her place.
Traditional foods have special meaning in every culture, and Lorena is passionate about what it means to share her mother’s Argentinian empanada recipes with Denver. She’s connecting to customers through the memories that baking brings. “What it brings,” Lorena tells me, “is the family coming together, and my mother commanding it all in the kitchen. What it brings is the conversations, spending all day together, solving the world’s problems…because the cooking takes a long time.”
Lorena Cantarovici, the ever-friendly owner of Maria Empanada
Many staff members were born in such places as Argentina, Mexico, or Guatemala, and when I’m feeling brave I can practice my bad Spanish on them. Whether customers speak Spanish or not, the staff is always eager to answer questions, conveying genuine enthusiasm about the fillings in each empanada.
The Argentina empanada is filled with steak, red peppers, eggs, green onions and olives. The Tango has sweet onions, ham, peppers, and mozzarella. My favorites are the Corn with spicy cheese sauce, Spinach with creamy béchamel sauce, and Chorizo with potatoes and eggs—I suggest arriving before noon for that one, because they make it for breakfast and once it runs out that’s it. Each empanada is a tiny pie wrapped in a tender, flaky baked crust. Just two or three can make a meal. As a Mexican-American who has traveled around the Southwest and Latin America, I’ve eaten my share of empanadas, but these are the best I’ve ever tasted—including homemade.
Lorena tells me the secret is in the lightness of the dough, the freshness of the ingredients, and the traditional Argentinian spices. Mostly the secret comes from memories of her mother: “Mostly it is the love.” One thing I like is that most of the empanadas don’t feature cilantro. I’m one of those people whose genetics cause cilantro to taste like soap. If you like cilantro, I doubt you’ll miss it. The recipes feature other great spices, and some specials do feature cilantro now and then.
About half of the empanadas come from Maria’s traditional recipes, but many are Lorena’s own inventions. She also specializes in other pastries, such as: tartas, which are large savory tarts comparable to quiches; Spanish tortillas, comparable to omelets; empanaditas, or tiny empanadas with sweet fillings such as caramelized bananas in hazelnut chocolate; traditional Argentinian alfajores, which are lemon-vanilla cookie sandwiches filled with dulce de leche and coconut; and the Victoria, a rich cheesecake-type pastry with a layer of dulce de leche:
Each week Lorena and her staff experiment with a new special. This week’s is Tarta Analía: filled with butternut squash, eggplant, red onion, zucchini, carrots, and egg. The tartas are not just delicious, they’re pretty:
Dale and I visit almost every week, and we often order the Buenos Aires breakfast: a media luna with a large café con leche. A media luna, or half moon, is a lightly sweet croissant with ham and cheese. For the uninitiated, café con leche is half-coffee, half-milk, a.k.a. café au lait:
Maria Empanada’s coffee is fantastic. I recommend trying the espresso, if only to see it made in the limited edition Venus Century espresso tower, of which only 100 were made by Victoria Arduino and then blessed by Pope Benedict XVI. I don’t know if it’s the blessing or the steel-copper-and-brass parts, but it makes a damned fine cup of high-octane Joe:
This casual restaurant even has a cool futuristic machine with two holes you can stick your hands into so it can wash and soften them for you, just to make sure not a single dust speck interferes with the taste of the food.
I believe the thing we really keep coming back for is the feeling of entering another culture without boarding a plane. More than that, it’s the feeling I get in a foreign town when I find that one neighborhood bakery I keep returning to until it becomes my home away from home. At Maria Empanada, I feel tucked inside Lorena’s favorite memories of her mother’s kitchen: “When I was a girl they would give me the job to close the empanadas.” She mimes pinching the edges together, and I picture a tiny girl standing on a stool, using tiny fingers to tuck in the flavors of love.