June 11 2012 06:24 PM

Pacific Beach's Papa Luna's features empanadas filled with tradition or whimsy

Papa Luna’s empanadas
Photo by Marie Tran-McCaslin

Dough wrapped around filling is a common theme in many cuisines. The filling can be meat-based or not; the dough can be crisp pastry or chewy wrappers. Samosas, xiao long bao and pierogis are examples of dumpling-esque finger foods from various parts of the world.

In Pacific Beach, Papa Luna's (1404 Garnet Ave., papalunas.com) specializes in the empanada, the Latin American pastry that has roots in Europe and variants throughout South America, Central America and Asia. Specifically, Papa Luna's features the Argentine version, born of owner Simon Baer's time studying in Buenos Aires. After considering a food truck and researching several neighborhoods, he decided on a brick-and-mortar location in the heart of P.B., where there's plenty of foot traffic, and an empanada is a perfect snack whether for lunch or as a late-night munchy (Papa Luna's is open until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights).

The empanadas are freshly made and sold within a half-day. The crust is vegetarian and baked, with fillings made from organic ingredients whenever possible. After trying lots of these items elsewhere, I've become a serious fan of Papa Luna's. The fillings range from the traditional, like espinaca y queso (spinach and cheese) to the whimsical, such as Turkey Dinner, filled with turkey, stuffing and cranberries.

My favorite is the Empanada de Choclo (corn, cotija cheese and roasted red peppers). Dunked in either spicy, smooth sriracha cream or the sharply fresh chimichurri, it's the perfect mix of sweet corn and peppers, rich pastry and salty cheese. The chimichurri is bright green and pungent with parsley and pepper flakes. It goes beautifully with the Carne Molida (ground beef, potato, olives, raisins, hard-boiled egg). Simon recommends the sriracha cream with the Camarones y Tocino (shrimp and bacon), another of my favorites.

The non-traditional empanadas have their own sauces. BBQ Pulled Pork comes with a sweet barbeque sauce, while Turkey Dinner is served with a side of gravy. The Jambalaya didn't really need condiments, with its spicy Andouille sausage mixed with crawfish, tomato and rice.

Dessert is also an empanada. I was told I just missed strawberry cheesecake, which is certainly intriguing. The Nutella banana éclair leaned heavily toward banana, and I would have liked to taste a little more Nutella and custard. The accompanying dark-chocolate sauce went well with the banana.

If you bought a half-dozen and took them home, how would you tell them apart?

"In Argentina, the empanadas are differentiated by the way the crimped edge is folded, but we have more flavors than methods of folding," Baer says. To resolve this, the empanadas are stamped with a letter, and a card's included with takeout orders to decipher it all.

The menu also includes sides like fried plantains and Caesar salad. For those who like to mix and match, combination plates are available. Various teas will make an appearance soon, including a pomegranate-hibiscus green tea and a double-mint mate. With empanadas making great bar food, a liquor license is in the works. Meanwhile, there's no shortage of bars nearby. Thank goodness empanadas are extremely portable.

Write to marietm@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Marie blogs at meanderingeats.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @MeanderingEats.


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