Pastelillos, or empanadas… call them what you want, they’re the latin American answer to the meat-filled dough pocket that every culinary tradition seems to have.
But there’s a lot of variety to this simple dish. Fortunately for us, there’s no shortage of empanada spots in Buffalo. So if you want one, you don’t have to go far… but what if you want the best one?
I recently asked the kind people on the Buffalo subreddit what they thought. Then a friend and I spent a Saturday driving around and eating way more empanadas than anybody should in a day.
It all began at La Kueva (1260 Hertel Ave.), an underappreciated spot specializing in rich Puerto Rican food that invites you to indulge; food that, if you’re on a diet, has the magic power to make any day a cheat day.
And their pastelillos live up to this noble promise: they’re the richest in town, with the crispiest deep-fried pastry shell and the cheesiest filling. When it comes to flavor, La Kueva doesn’t do subtle… but most of the people I’ve talked to aren’t bothered by this in the least. What La Kueva does offer, along with no apologies latin comfort food, is an cozy and welcoming dine-in experience. We were greeted on a chilly winter day with a complimentary cup of chicken and rice soup, the warming effect of which was felt almost before the first spoonful.
The Venezuelan flag flies outside our next stop, Ranchos Latin Food (1516 Niagara St.). Ranchos is a newcomer, having opened its doors a little over two months ago, and it hasn’t yet earned the notoriety of similar eateries… but I suspect it will only be a matter of time.
Because by specializing in Venezuelan-style latin food, it distinguishes itself from the highly competitive Puerto Rican food scene in Buffalo. It’s currently the only place in Buffalo you can get an Arepa sandwich, made with cornmeal breading and, at Ranchos, fried and stuffed with meat. They also offer a Venezuelan-style empanada, with a cornmeal crust and a brisket-style (as opposed to ground) meat filling.
Naturally we tried both the Venezuelan and the traditional; the traditional was an empanada in the South American-style, lighter on the fat (but still fried, of course) and with less cheese and more onions and olives in the filling. At first I thought the cornmeal crust on the Venezuelan-style empanada was a bit much, but the more I ate, the more I found myself craving another bite of that slightly-sweet breading.
There’s a lot to discover at Ranchos, and I have no doubt we’ll be back soon.
Niagara Café (525 Niagara St.), as the old cliché goes, needs no introduction. It’s the first Puerto Rican restaurant you hear about as a newcomer to Buffalo, and it’s practically a rite of passage standing in line at the counter waiting to order while the regulars trade orders and opinions with the staff in Spanish.
No pastelillo trail would be complete without a stop here, and although we were quickly getting full we gladly made room for the Café’s storied pastelillos, which sit in a glorious pile in a case on the counter. Niagara Café’s pastelillos are a more subtle alternative–as much as you can use the word subtle when talking about Puerto Rican food–to La Kueva’s: the crust is somewhere between crispy and soft, and the seasoning of the meat plays a bigger role in its overall appeal. They’re less cheesy, too… in short, their flavors are well-balanced, which you might consider to be a good thing depending on your circumstances (like, for example, if you’re determined to drive around Buffalo all day doing nothing but eating pastelillos).
Our last stop was Monte’s Grocery (413 Swan St.), a tiny kiosko near Larkinville. A few people recommended Monte’s, and we made it a priority to get here because it came highly recommended for a place that nobody we knew had ever heard of. And if you don’t live in the neighborhood, that’s not surprising–it’s largely a bodega-style convenience store featuring Goya products, soft drinks and tobacco products. Oh… and a case full of delicious-looking fried latin food that greets you when you walk in.
Their pastelillos are inexpensive but, after a few bites in the car (there’s no place to sit at Monte’s), we were convinced that they could hold their own against La Kueva. They didn’t have the subtlety of Niagara Café’s seasoned filling, but if I lived in this neighborhood I would be beyond thrilled that latin food of such quality was available at this price only a few blocks away. And next time I’m in Larkinville I’m definitely stopping back.
Of course, there are other spaces in Buffalo that serve empanadas. Sazon Criollo (272 Hudson St.) is a favorite, but only open on weekdays. You can get them on the West Side at La Gourmet Empanadas (74 Herkimer St.) and Gypsy Parlor (376 Grant St.). Sources also tell me you can get them at the Getty Gas Station on Skillen and Ontario Street.