England has the pasty; Italy has the calzone; but in Argentina, the empanada is king. And if you live in Southern California, the last empanada you had was most likely the Argentinian kind. Encountering an empanada here that’s not Argentinian is almost as rare as an Argentinian restaurant that doesn’t serve it.
Even at Costa Mesa’s Il Dolce, which is otherwise an Italian place, the Argentinian chef-owner can’t resist sneaking in an empanada into his list of antipasti. And that’s a good thing. When given the option, who wouldn’t want one of these half-moon pockets of goodness with the crunchy braided edges shaped like a smile that you save for last?
Yet if you want to experience the full spectrum of all the possible empanada flavors, you must seek out a restaurant that has the word as part of its name. The newest is La Farola Empanadas, which recently opened in Costa Mesa.
While it’s only been here for about a month, La Farola has been a fixture in Tustin since 2015 when it began selling empanadas at the back of a liquor store. And now that it has moved into this full-fledged restaurant space — a significant upgrade from its previous location surrounded by bottles of hooch — La Farola finally earns a dining room to match the breadth of the dishes it’s always offered.
And it’s a dizzying menu. Owner Eva Galvan doesn’t just make 15 kinds of empanadas; she also puts out house-made pastas, pizzas, salads, hot and cold sandwiches and best of all, seven iterations of Milanesa, which is what happens when a country fried steak collides with a veal Parmigiana.
For desserts, she offers facturas, Argentinian pastries similar to danishes. And her cañoncitos — dulce de leche-filled cookies that look like little cannons — are so crumbly you have to eat them over the sink.
But when I called one day a week ago, Galvan told me that she only had the par-baked empanadas available. It was because her equipment had just been repaired. And she had to wait for the inspector to sign off on it before she could make any of her hot dishes, or even heat up the empanadas.
This didn’t deter me from coming. And when I purchased the par-baked empanadas, Galvan carefully packed the ones I picked in a pizza box with a handwritten note taped to the outside. On it she drew sketches to help me correlate each filling to its unique identifying shape.
“The one with the fold on the corner is the tuna,” she said, pointing to her drawing.
“You want to heat them for 10 to 15 minutes at 350 degrees, or until the tops get brown,” she continued like a doting mother, “but they’re fully cooked, so don’t overcook them.”
At home, I followed her instructions. And as the wonderful smells wafting out of the oven filled my kitchen, I realized it was the closest I’d ever come to being in an Argentinian household with a maternal figure like Galvan baking empanadas for her family.
But as intoxicating as the aroma was, the empanadas tasted even better. The crust was thick enough to securely cocoon the filling, but not so thick that it’s doughy. And I’m convinced that ground beef has never served a nobler purpose than in these empanadas, which wept so much juice, it might dribble onto your shirt or cause minor burns if you’re careless.
From the “Arab” empanada which has a lemon juice tang, to the “sweet beef” with raisins mixed in and the Bolivian-style salteña with bits of potato, there is no wrong choice with any of the beef ones. The tuna empanada, however, was so good it shouldn’t be passed up.
The moist tuna flakes melted on my tongue like ice cream, and it got even better when I slathered on the chimichurri, a silky concoction of herbs and oil that I’m not ashamed to say I gulped like a tequila shot after all the empanadas were gone.
Two days later, I heard that La Farola got the inspector’s sign off and was now fully operational. This, of course, meant the Milanesas were in play.
So I went back. And for $1.50 more than the basic model, the “La Farola Milanesa” is the one you want.
Galvan starts with a steak (or chicken) that she pounds flat to the thinness and circumference of an iPad mini. Then she breads and deep-fries it before brushing on some tomato sauce and layering on a slice of ham and melted mozzarella. Finally, she tops her masterpiece with two fried eggs.
Served with a side of hot fries, it has the appearance of a meal that’s more over-the-top than KFC’s Double Down Sandwich. But because it’s made with love by Galvan and not by a faceless corporation, it felt like I was eating something that was actually good for me.
And isn’t that always the deciding factor on whether we call something junk food or comfort food?
If You Go
What: La Farola Empanadas
Where: 2790 Harbor Blvd. Ste 118, Costa Mesa
When: Mondays to Saturdays 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost: $2.75 per empanada, up to $14 for plates
Information: (714) 714-0588; lafarolaempanadas.com