By Stett Holbrook
WHEN AMERICANS are hungry for a snack we typically reach for potato chips or candy bars. But in South American countries like Peru, Argentina and Chile, empanadas are the go-to food.
The turnoverlike pastries are filled with meat and vegetables and eaten for a quick bite or a light meal at any time of day or night. Sweet, fruit-filled versions make great desserts. Because Silicon Valley has a relatively small population of South Americans, there are few places that sell them here, but with the opening of Canela Espresso and Pastries in Cupertino, the South Bay now has a great source for the sweet and savory pastries. And that's a good thing. I'd take one of their delicious empanadas over a bag of Doritos any time.
Ingrid Rivera runs the Foothill Boulevard cafe with her parents and siblings. When I stopped in to talk to Rivera last week, her sister made coffee behind the counter, her father meticulously entered expenses into a ledger at a nearby table and her brother was out making deliveries.
"The whole family helps out," she says.
The Rivera family has been making empanadas from a family recipe out of Campbell for five years and sells them to Whole Foods, Oakville Grocery, Lunardi's, New Leaf Market and other outlets. They specialize in Peruvian-style empanadas. Unlike other South American countries, Peruvian empanadas are baked instead of fried, which makes them lighter and healthier.
The 3-month-old cafe is the family's first retail location. Rivera says the margins in the wholesale business are thin and she wanted to open a cafe where she could offer all the empanadas they make. (Stores only offer a few flavors.) At her cafe, she sells a traditional beef empanada filled with sliced beef, onions, black olives and raisins, as well as chicken and mushroom, spinach and cheese, breakfast empanadas and versions like Thai chicken and a vegan "Italian primavera" empanada. Be sure to try the aji amarillo salsa, a creamy Peruvian salsa that tastes a bit like hot mustard and goes great with the empanadas.
The cafe also makes excellent coffee out of organic beans from Santa Clara's Barefoot Coffee Roasters. (Try the canela-flavored cappuccino. "Canela" means cinnamon in Spanish, and the Riveras make their own cinnamon syrup.) In addition to American-style sandwiches and pastries, the cafe also makes a Peruvian roast beef sandwich, a big, meaty sandwich that's popular with the truck drivers heading up to the quarry on Stevens Creek Boulevard.
While empanadas may be unfamiliar to some, wrapping ingredients in pastry is not unique to South America. Ingrid says she gets regular business from local Russian women who call her empanadas piroshkis, Eastern European meat pies. She also has a customer who says her empanadas remind him of a dish his mother used to make in Africa. Spain, Portugal, the Philippines and Jamaica also make their own versions of empanadas.
Rivera, a hardworking, talkative woman with short black hair who grew up in tropical eastern Peru near the Brazilian border, doesn't care what customers call her empanadas as long as they like them.
"People's response has been amazing," she says. "We're very lucky."
And so are we.
Canela Espresso and Pastries 10631 S. Foothill Blvd., Cupertino. 408.255.2833
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