Latin Oasis in a Traffic Island: Mama's Empanadas

In a long marriage you get very attuned to series of moments that will lead to a full scale eruption.  And paradoxically in a long marriage you can know all the signs and ignore them just the same.  When you are both aware of all the little actions or inactions that can cause imminent disaster and, through acts of patience, forbearance, or sheer luck, you manage to skirt it, well, that’s an achievement.

 Our meeting at Woodhaven Boulevard had all the hallmarks of an incipient eruption. I had popped up there to meet the Chef, who had walked the ten miles from our home in Morningside Heights. We would then walk together for the next four or five miles to our destination: hipster Ridgewood. “Almost there,” he texted me, right as I saw the cheery blue and yellow sign for “Mama’s Empanadas.” On a grim concrete traffic triangle across from the Queens Center Mall, Mama’s was a hive of activity, and of course I gravitated to the stall, which is bigger than a food cart, but only just. A Baskin-Robbinesque sign listed over fifty different fillings, some in maiz (corn) or wheat flour. “Getting in line for an empanada” I texted.

The waiting…and waiting…and waiting

The Chef is a fast walker. No sooner had I picked out an arroz y frijoles maize empanada ($1.35) when he appeared at my elbow. “What do you want?” I asked him. He scanned the list and let me put in his order for pernil (pork shoulder, $2.00) and then we saw them: a group of maybe 15 people in a small space partitioned off on the other side of the ordering window.  Minutes ticked by, five, then ten, and very few people in the crowded space seemed to have picked up the white paper bags the workers were putting on the counter. Occasionally someone would pop up out of nowhere and pick up a bag. I was starting to feel like I was in the DMV.

The Chef looked grim. I was very conscious that he had earmarked this weekend for the kind of long solo walks a flurry of weekends full of family activity had made impossible. I looked at him, abashed. “I’m sorry we did this,” I said. “Let’s just leave. It’s only $4.00—not even.” But The Chef is honorable. He would not want to leave Mama’s Empanadas holding the bag—literally, a white paper bag. “No, we’ll wait,” he said, adding that we might not have enough time to explore Ridgewood. Ten more minutes passed, and I noticed I did not have the little slip of paper others were handing over. The Chef raised his eyebrows when I went to the counter. I braced myself. I knew he thought I was now going to embarrass him by asking for our order first—the ugly Gringo. Being as discrete as possible, I said in Spanish that we did not have our receipt and repeated what we ordered. “Cinco Minutos,” Mama Empanada said. I walked back to the Chef thinking the eruption was imminent. He would bark at me. I would swat back defensively. The day—one of the first full Spring weather days—would be spoilt.

The Payoff

Yet, miraculously, we seemed to each give each other a pass at the same time. Of course, none of this would have turned out so nicely if the these Columbian-inflected empanadas were not worth the wait. They came fried with a crispy shell, which transformed my workaday staple of rice and beans into a canapé. We sat in a nearby bench dipping halves into a green spicy sauce with a mayo base, and I swapped a bite to taste the Chef’s tender morsels of slow roasted pernil. I learned later that Mama’s cooks pinch the dough in different ways so they know what filling is in each one. I also learned that Mama’s is part of the chain of Empanada Mama’s, all owned by Socrates Nanas. They both offer a “Viagra” empanada filled with seafood (though our outpost calls it “Biagra”)—which the Times’ Peter Meehan called “fishy, funky, and unfortunate,” in a 2005 review. There are dessert empanadas, like the “Elvis,” filled with peanut butter and bananas. Yum— or possibly yuck?

 We did walk on to Ridgewood through leafy green Juniper Valley park. We admired the facades of the Ridgewood buildings: creamy ivory brick with decorative brown motifs. We passed bars that are now “bars.” The best thing about Ridgewood: Topos Bookstore, the kind of used/new bookstore cafe you used to see in major cities before rents became stratospheric. Sitting across from the Chef at a rickety metal table, sharing a fat cranberry scone, both engrossed in our books, I thought how easily the day could have gone off the rails but for a moment of inexplicable grace at an Empanada oasis.

Mama’s Empanadas
5920 Elmhurst Blvd.