My expectations were as high as my hopes when I met my co-adventurer at La Porteña, a butcher shop turned Argentine steak house in Jackson Heights, for another round of empanada testing last week.
I’d heard rave reviews about their empanadas from near and far:
“Start with excellent hot, crusty empanadas stuffed with a spicy mixture of ground beef, chopped egg, olives, and onion,” New York magazine wrote in a recent review.
A Taxi Gourmet reader who lives in Buenos Aires and happens to be the daughter of a prominent restaurant critic there also approved La Porteña’s empanadas: “I used to go there often when I lived in NY. Great asado too.”
Given these recommendations, we had good reason to believe that we were we about to taste the empanada that would cure – or at least lessen – the homesickness of Daniel, the Buenos Aires native who works at my taxi garage.
But when our two beef empanadas and one chicken arrived in deep-fried form, I sent them back.
“It’s not for health reasons,” I told my co-adventurer, “When the empanadas are fried, the flavor of the filling gets lost.”
She nodded with a mixture of trust and bewilderment, and we waited 20 minutes for our so-called gaucho pies to bake, studying photos of Gardel and Maradona and prize fighters I hadn’t heard of, listening to tango and chacarera songs that would never be played in a Buenos Aires parrilla, gorging on warm but hardening bread, pungent chimichurri, and salsa criolla (with red and green peppers, onions, oil and vinegar).
When our empanadas finally arrived, we admired their browned beauty before we each took a beef one and cut it in half.
“Uh, oh,” said my co-adventurer, who’s been on empanada journeys with me before, “You’re not going to like this.”
The beef was ground. The empanada that I was seeking on Daniel’s behalf (Who am I kidding? On my behalf, too) would have carne cortada a cuchillo. Translation: Beef cut by hand into small chunks, in the style of the stellar empanadas in the northwestern Argentine province of Tucumán.
Still, I wanted to taste the gaucho pie before I dismissed it. The filling was well-seasoned – a bit of cumin here, a bit of paprika there. It was the dough, under-salted and thick and probably accustomed to being fried, that disappointed me more.
When we added chimichurri sauce – sacrilegious in Buenos Aires, but totally acceptable in New York – we liked our gaucho pies, especially the chicken one, better. In any case, the quest continues.
On Saturday, May 22, I’m organizing an empanada crawl in Queens. Here are the spots we’ll hit:
- La Nueva Bakery in Jackson Heights
- El Chivito d’Oro in Jackson Heights
- La Esquina Criolla in Elmhurst
- La Fusta in Elmhurst
- Any other place that looks promising along the way
If you’d like to join me, you can RSVP here or send me an email. Everyone is welcome. Note: since all of these spots are within a 1-2 mile radius of one another, we’ll walk (all the better to fan our appetites).
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a good skirt steak ($19.95), La Porteña is definitely worth a try. The one that my co-adventurer and I shared – well-marbled, perfectly salted, juice running all over the plate – would have satisfied a Buenos Aires grill master. Here are the coordinates:
La Porteña – Map it
74-25 37th Ave. (near 75th St.) – Jackson Heights, Queens
Credit cards accepted
Open: 7 days, noon-11:30pm