El Sur: Empanadas With a French Accent

The empanada is the perfect street food. They're small enough that you can eat one as a snack, shaped in a way to comfortably hold with one hand while you nosh, and stuffed with enough filling variations to keep things interesting. Add to that regional styles, from Spain and Portugal to Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, and you could eat empanadas every day of the week and not get bored.

In the adorable El Sur Truck (a 1970 Citroen H-Van purchased in France and retrofitted with a kitchen), Marianne Despres bakes up a unique blend of Argentine and Peruvian family influences wrapped up in French technique.

The menu has three meat options, two vegetarian choices, and one rotating seasonal empanada. While all were very good, it was the Traditional ($4, hand cut beef, onions, pimentón, hard-boiled egg, olives, oregano), with its generously spiced batons of meat instead of ground beef, that wowed. Sliced olive and hard-boiled egg added some of the expected elements, all wrapped up in a wonderfully tender crust that still managed to maintain its structural integrity until the last bite.

We also loved the stew-like filling of the Pollo Saltado ($4, sautéed chicken, onions, tomatoes, hard boiled egg, olives), the veggie Verde ($4, sautéed Swiss chard and spinach, onions, five cheeses), and the Parisien ($4, chopped prosciutto and country ham, scallions, chives, five cheeses), which was like a croque monsieur in empanada form. All of the empanadas tell you a little bit about owner Marianne Despres.

Growing up with parents from South America, Despres ate a mix of Argentine and Peruvian cuisine. “The Pollo Saltado is a tribute to my Peruvian mother and the Parisien, a tribute to Paris,” she says.

A graduate of Cordon Bleu in Paris, Despres spent time at French Laundry, then in high-end catering before jumping into the empanada business. “I had just gotten married and knew I wanted to start a family, and it seemed catering could give me a bit more flexibility over having a restaurant job,” she says. “Although I love to design and prepare elaborate menus, I always missed making simple, rustic food. … So when thinking about what defined my life as a food item it was definitely the empanada.”

While the empanada may not be fine dining, Despres makes empanadas that make for very fine eating.

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