Dining » Cafe

Do the Empanada

Want delicious Argentinean fare? It's time to Tango.

Hector and Stella Aberastury don't dance the tango, but they love the music. They've adorned the walls of their restaurant with countless album covers, mostly from legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel, a folk hero back in their native country of Argentina, on par with France's Chevalier or America's Sinatra. Hector and Stella claim to know the tango's basic steps, which back home is probably akin to fumbling through the Electric Slide or the Chicken Dance.

"It's too hard," says Hector.

"It's embarrassing," says Stella.

They also don't care for the commotion of city life, not even the famed sizzle and bustle of Buenos Aires. They lived in a suburb of the capital city, a good 40 minutes out. Now they're residents of St. Charles. "We love St. Charles," Stella says. "The quiet, the people."

In 1992 the Aberasturys traveled here with their baby girl in tow to visit Hector's mother, a St. Louisan for some 40 years. Hector asked Stella how she liked it, and if she thought she might want to stay. They went down to the local immigration office and were asked to show their marriage certificate, which they hadn't thought to bring with them on vacation. To make things easier, Hector and Stella married for a second time in St. Charles. Hector now wears two wedding bands and jokes, "I marry the same wife two times. I'm stupid."

They returned home and waited three years for the embassy to call and say their papers were ready. In November 1995 the Aberasturys returned to St. Louis.

Hector and Stella met working at a bank; he was a cashier, she was a mortgage and loan officer. When they began their new life here, they worked for a cleaning company. Hector also delivered newspapers. Then, about five years ago, they embarked on a little side venture. They started selling empanadas — large, deep-fried dumplings stuffed with assorted fillings and condiments, the signature delicacy of Argentina — at weekend street fairs and festivals.

Business was slow the first few years — maybe three or four festivals per summer — and they considered it strictly a hobby. People would often pass by their tented booth slowly, curiously, not sure exactly what an empanada was and knowing even less about Argentina. So the Aberasturys built a poster-board display that showed a map of the nation and dispensed a few basic facts. It also listed the different kinds of empanadas they offered: carne picante (spicy meat), carne no picante (mild meat), espinaca (spinach), jamón y queso (ham and cheese) and humita (similar to creamed corn).

Last year the Aberasturys trotted out their poster and their empanadas to 40 different events. They also set up shop on summertime Saturday afternoons in the Loop's outdoor market. By then, they needed a name for their business. They chose Tango Argentina Food.

Once customers saw that there was a name, they started asking more and more if there was a restaurant behind it. The Aberasturys had been saving up their empanada profits to bankroll a trip back to Argentina for Christmas. This past November, somebody told them they ought to look at a building in St. Peters, a low-slung house along the old downtown just off I-70 that had been retrofitted to accommodate a restaurant. Hector and Stella fell in love with it on sight. They cancelled their Christmas plans, used those earmarked funds as seed money instead, and opened St. Louis' only Argentinean restaurant.

While Tango offers a brief menu besides empanadas — milanesa (thin cuts of beef, lightly breaded and fried), tartas (savory pies with many of the same fillings as the empanadas) and, on Saturday nights, a barbecue meat plate called asado that sells out early — the empanadas are still, far and away, Tango's best-selling item.

In Argentina, empanadas are not considered fast food or street food, even though their structure makes them quite portable, and even though there are places in the cities that, like hamburger joints here, sell just empanadas and nothing else. "It's like country music," explains Hector. "It doesn't belong to the cities. In the city, you got Madonna."

Empanadas are widely thought to have been brought to Argentina from Galicia, Spain, but it was the gauchos (native Argentinean horsemen who herded cattle along the country's central plains, like American cowboys) who first began incorporating empanadas into their diets. The food caught on in mothers' kitchens nationwide, then began appearing in restaurants. In Argentina, empanadas are often eaten at sit-down lunches or dinners, and they're always served at parties.

Stella learned to make empanadas from her mother, as most Argentinean women do. Neither she nor Hector has a professional restaurant background, or a formal culinary education. And yet, the empanadas at Tango turn out — day after day, and up until recently seven days a week — absolutely fantastic. These empanadas are all things: savory, sweet, moist, crunchy, spicy, firm, juicy, superb. It is impossible not to love them.

Empanadas can be baked or fried, but Argentinean tradition dictates the latter, as the nomadic gauchos didn't cook with ovens. Tango's empanadas are dunked in a deep-fryer just as French fries would be, but their outer shells — derived from a whole-wheat flour dough formulated specially for frying, purchased from Argentina through a Miami-based distributor, pre-sliced in thin rounds and packaged in plastic like cold cuts — manage a graceful and tantalizing crustiness, a sturdy-yet-pliant casing that bends but never breaks. When bitten into, there's a palpable crunch, and then there's an audible squish, and then there's delicious filling.

The creamed spinach inside the espinaca empanada bears a pungent and robust smokiness, like a hard cheese, offset by adorable little bits of hard-cooked egg whites. Soft cubes of ham inside the jamón y queso taste like glorious, greasy, fatty bacon that's been underdone just so, melting in the mouth alongside a tangy cheese. Chunks of green pepper, white onion and more egg whites jockey for room inside the finely ground beef filling of the carne picante empanada, which stokes a warming fire from the palate on down to the belly. The humita's filling is the sweetest of them all. More like corn pudding than creamed corn, it is made by mixing loose kernels of canned corn into a rich béchamel (or, as it's colloquially known in Argentina, "white sauce") that the Aberasturys accent with onions and a sweet cheese they keep secret.

(To distinguish one kind of empanada from another, the Argentineans devised different repulgues, patterns along the casings' seams. A carne picante's seam looks braided, while carne no picante is also braided but with a little tail on the end. The humita boasts a fork-pressed trimming, like a homemade pie. Stella made up her own repulgues for her espinaca and jamón y queso empanadas.)

Really, empanadas are a perfect food. They register lightly going down but prove quite filling by meal's end. Their pop-in-your-mouth design lends well to scarfing them one right after another, but their self-insulating shape holds heat so well that they're also suitable for lingering repasts. Most of them contain three, if not all four, major food groups. They reheat extremely well in an oven, all the better to re-crisp their pastry shells. (Microwaves render them soggy.) Stateside, they make for an adventurous eating foray, but man, do they beat the hell out of Taco Bell as satiating late-night drunk food.

Tango would probably do very well in a business district with a lot of lunch-hour foot traffic, like downtown, or along the Latin American restaurant row of Cherokee Street. But it is still doing very well in St. Peters, on its sleepy stretch of Main Street that time and big-box development forgot. The Aberasturys have made regulars out of people who patronized their little empanada booth and begged them to open a restaurant, people who live as far away as Illinois and Kansas City. And from those regulars, they've made friends. And that must make them feel very much at home.

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