Wherever there are working stiffs, there are empanadas. Oh, they may not be called that. In Italy, they're called "calzones." In England's western reaches, Cornish wives sent their husbands into the tin mines with meat-filled pasties. In the Arab world and India, they're samosas. But the essence of them is the same: proteins wrapped in dough and cooked (either by baking or frying). Indeed, "empanada" is derived from the Spanish verb "empanar," meaning "to wrap in bread."
However, it's in Argentina where the empanada has become an art form. And the best Argentine-style empanadas I've tried in San Diego are at Papa Luna's (1050 Columbia St., Downtown; another location in Pacific Beach). The short-rib version is the single best Argentine-style empanada I've ever tasted, anywhere. It's short rib done as pulled pork—meltingly tender, fantastically rich, luscious, deep and delicious—inside a crispy, doughy package that fits in your hand. It's fast food done as high cuisine—or is it high cuisine done as fast food?
Empanadas came to Argentina via Spain, where cookbooks dating to the 1500s mention seafood-filled empanadas (which, in turn, are of Middle Eastern origin). More specifically, they're said to have come over from Galicia, a region in the northwest of Spain known for its seafood, seafarers and fishermen, and its poetically, if grimly, named Costa del Muerte ("coast of death"). The classic Galician empanada is a large seafood-filled pie cut into pieces for easy working-class transport.
Papa Luna's camarones y tocino (shrimp and bacon) was the closest to the versions I'd tried in Galicia, where tuna and sardine-based empanadas are menu fixtures. The rich flavors of the shrimp play off the smoky notes of the bacon. Papa Luna's addition of Sriracha cream added a layer of heat, as well as moistness, to the filling, a hallmark of all Papa Luna's empanadas.
The least successful of the empanadas I tried at Papa Luna's looked likely, at least on paper, to be one of its best: the jamon y queso (ham and cheese with arugula). I would have liked to be able to describe the ham but, frankly, there just wasn't enough of it. It ended up as melted mozzarella inside a bready pastry with flecks of meat and green stuff. It just didn't work.
Much better was the most classic of Papa Luna's offerings (and perhaps the prototypical Argentinian empanada): the carne molida. It's ground beef combined with green olives, raisins and hard-cooked egg—a clear nod to the Spanish bloodlines of the dish—making for a flavor profile that tickled the entire mouth. Savory, sweet and umami flavors traded off on the tongue, with the classic Argentinian chimichurri sauce (finely chopped parsley, red pepper flakes, minced garlic, red-wine vinegar and olive oil) providing heat, pungency and a touch of herbaceous bitterness.
Cynical white-collar San Diegans might refer to the glass-and-granite towers of Downtown as their "salt mines." Now, with Papa Luna's, they have a lunch option to match that bit of blue-collar imagery.