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From the Driver’s Seat: On Rivalries and Empanadas

There I was, once again, stuck in traffic on 42nd St, desperate to get to a bathroom. Somehow I’d ended up behind a red corvette with Pennsylvania plates who was talking on his cell phone while time was running out on a left turn signal.

I honked at him and swerved around his sports car, exasperated. How could he be so oblivious?

Two blocks later, an NYPD squad car pulled up next to me on Ninth Avenue. The officer, whose blonde hair was cut in a summer buzz, said, “You in a hurry?”

(This is never a good opening question from the NYPD. If they ever ask you this, don’t say “yes.”)

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said. My voice shook with an urgency that was very, very real.

The officer didn’t buy it.

“Are you an adult?” he said.

For a second, I was flattered. Did he think I was too young to be driving? Cool! But no, that wasn’t where he was headed.

“You better grow up,” he continued, “You drive around all day. You can stop wherever you want and go to the bathroom.”

At this point, I pressed my lips closed and swallowed my words. This was not the moment to point out the scarcity of taxi stands around the city and the civilians – and NYPD squad cars – who take up spaces in them.

“And instead you come up with stupid excuses to drive like an idiot,” he went on, “Grow up. And stop driving like an a**hole.”

I stared at him with what must have been a mixture of shame and incredulity, beating back my desire to talk back. He rolled up his window. The light changed. He gunned it down Ninth Avenue and was gone.

In the universe of epic rivalries – Pepsi vs. Coke, Microsoft vs. Apple, Leno vs. Letterman – the ongoing war between yellow cab drivers and the NYPD may not seem all that significant. But it’s a very real part of New York’s culturescape. Thanks to my bladder and the pokey red corvette, I’d added to it. And I was in no position to diffuse it.

Hours went by. Every time I was tempted to take advantage of the responsiveness of the Ford Crown Victoria, I paused. (I’m still not used to driving a car with a V-8 engine, and the power sometimes goes to my foot.) Stop driving like an a**hole. Was this a new mantra?

The cop’s words were still on my mind when it was time for lunch – and time for me to enter the territory of another time-worn conflict.

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I’ve spent the last several months scouring New York in search of an empanada that would win Buenos Aires native Daniel Beccaria’s approval. So far, I’ve gone to 10 Argentine restaurants, and not one of their beef empanadas comes close to what’s fueling the former cabbie’s nostalgia. I needed a new approach.

Enter Barros Luco, a new Chilean restaurant in midtown Manhattan that specializes in steak sandwiches and has built up a lot of buzz around its empanadas.

I’ve had several people recommend Barros Luco since I started this quest on Daniel’s behalf, but I’ve held off from trying their empanadas. If you’re familiar with the history of Latin America’s Southern Cone, you know that there’s still a lot of bitterness between Chileans and Argentines, who almost went to war over a border dispute in Patagonia in the late 1970s that later led to Chile’s support of the U.K. during the Falklands War.

Daniel – who works at my taxi garage and has lived in New York for the past 20 years – is an open-minded guy. But I couldn’t imagine telling him that the best Argentine empanada in New York is Chilean. Still, if it was true, he deserved to know.

The friendly cashier at Barros Luco had no idea what I was up to when he asked the cook to pop a beef empanada in the oven for me. A few minutes later, from the comfort of the driver’s seat, I bit into it and knew it wouldn’t put a stop to Daniel’s yearning.

Why? Big chunks of beef were dry and a slightly tough, seasoned with smoked red pepper but no cumin, surrounded by black olives and raisins and hard-boiled egg, which meant that it was packed with flavor but too rogue for an Argentine empanada. Though it was thick, the dough was flavorful, dutifully supporting the business of the filling.

Later on, at the garage, I told Daniel about what I’d tasted, “It’s really good, but it’s different. It’s a Chilean empanada. You have to eat it for what it is, not go in expecting that it’s going to taste like home.”

He nodded, amused, not the least bit put off by the fact that I’d stretched the boundaries of the search.

Barros LucoMap it
300 East 52nd Street (near 2nd Ave), Midtown East
Tel. (212) 371-0100‎ – (212) 371-0177‎
Open: Mon-Thurs, 11am-10pm; Fri-Sat 11-11; Sun 11-8
Credit cards accepted
Empanadas: $5

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  1. Christian DiNapoli


    It was a pleasure meeting you on Sat. Just wanted to tell you that Deb and I went to Barros Luco yesterday and tried the empanadas. Since you have more experience in Argentina than we do (we were there a total of 5 days) I will defer to your expertise but I must say the beef empanada here was easily the closest to the ones I had in BA. Absolutely delicious and I thought I did taste cumin but maybe I was wrong. Keep up the search. Thanks again for the recommendation and good luck in Berlin. We will be following your blog regularly now.


    • Hi Christian –
      It was great meeting you, too. The empanada-obsessed are good people. You just made my morning – I’m so glad you liked Barros Luco! Maybe I should ask them if they use cumin – my taster might have been off. If I find any more worth trying, I’ll be sure to let you and Deb know.
      PS – I’ve been trying to get to McCarren Park to try empanadas but I probably won’t make it before I take off for Berlin. They’re very popular (although I think they may be fried): http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/brooklyn/empanada_war_breaks_out_in_mccarren_CNyAjq7TOukqVggIhulUMI

      • I’ll try getting there. Off the top of my head, I don’t even know where McCarren Park is but I’ll find it.

        BTW, forgot to mention that we also picked up some of the baklava at that place next store. Unbelievable. After our trip to Santorini Deb has been hooked on Mediterranean desserts. So basically you fulfilled 2 peoples dreams in one trip LOL.

  2. It’s kind of funny how many people told you to try this place, glad to see you finally did, haha.

    See you tonight!