FFoods that look like pockets of deliciousness hold a special place in our hearts. Nostalgic memories of Pop-Tarts and Hot Pockets for some, dumplings and manapua for others. Either way, the suspense of finding out what’s inside the outside of the carby is enough to excite me, even as an adult.
I had originally heard about Guaiqueri Empanadas from Mimi Mendoza, the pastry chef at Senia, when they were taking orders through Instagram. Blame the algorithm, but I couldn’t get the timing right and never managed to catch one. So when I heard they would be popping up on Tuesdays at ‘ili’ili Cash & Carry, I couldn’t wait to check them out.
Omarlys Fernandez, a Montessori teacher, and Jurian Rojas, a web developer, both found themselves out of work at the start of the pandemic and decided to feed people what they love: homemade empanadas. The two are back to work, but over the past two years they’ve built up a hungry following and continue to moonlight as Guaiqueri Empanadas, satisfying their fans’ cravings for the crispy golden pockets.
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Empanadas can be found from Spain and Portugal to South and Central American countries, each with a different “masa” or dough and in a wide variety of shapes and sizes with endless combinations of toppings to match. Guaiqueri specializes in Venezuelan empanadas made with an imported brand of Venezuelan cornmeal that has a finer texture, resulting in a soft, pliable dough before frying. Adding annatto or annatto (often used as a natural coloring) gives empanadas a golden orange hue.
The day I head to ‘ili’ili, I’m hungry and ready to smash some empanadas. They offer seven different toppings, including spicy chorizo ($5), dominoes or black beans and cheese ($6), chicken and cream cheese ($6), and cazón or cod ($6). You have to see these empanadas in person to understand how big they are. They are about six inches long, so I decide to order three for my first round. Fernandez recommends the chicken and cream cheese and notes that the shredded beef is also a customer favorite, so I add them to my order along with the cazón, another Venezuelan specialty. I’m no newbie to the sauce game, so I also request their green guasacaca sauce (an indigenous recipe from Fernandez’s grandmother).
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Fresh out of the fryer, the empanadas are steaming and a beautiful golden orange-brown. After letting them cool, I bite into one to reveal chicken and cream cheese. The exterior of the masa is light with a floral flavor of corn and a slight earthy touch of achiote. Inside, the cream cheese pairs well with the fluffy shredded chicken. Dipped in the garlic guasacaca, its fresh herbs enhance everything. I love cream cheese in all things so this one is after my heart.
These pockets are stuffed and pulled beef is no exception. The slightly sweet and tender beef exudes warm spice notes that add dimension to its savory flavor. The cazón is something I have never tried before. Oozing with amber oil and a light seafood aroma, the cod has a mild flavor with a chewy, flaky texture. I love them all and immediately want to try the others. Leaping from one to the other, I dunk my pocket meal with abandon.
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I’m able to catch Rojas frying orders after mine and noticed that instead of using the donut fryer that ‘ili’ ili inherited from Watanabe Bakery, he uses a few burners and a seasoned pot. He told me he is able to control the temperature to ensure each empanada is fried to perfection and not greasy. Guaiqueri also makes tres leches cake, which you can order via Instagram the night before. They can also deliver frozen empanadas to your door once a week, which you can order through the link on their profile.
So you have no excuse not to try these empanadas. Under the pretext of having to taste their tres leches, I will certainly come back next Tuesday to get my dose of these pockets of love.