A cheerful yellow light filtered through the cozy Colombian bakery called Marine's Empanadas. The tiny cafe, with its eight tables and four booths, is located in a strip center at the corner of Richmond and Hillcroft. The golden glow was coming from the banana-colored awnings mounted on the inside of the restaurant's plate-glass storefront. The window treatment had the odd effect of making the window's interior look like it ought to be the exterior.
A wall-mounted menu that includes "chuck wagon" empanadas stuffed with sirloin, mushrooms and red wine sauce sucked me in further. And a bakery display case filled with alluring rolls, breads and pastries I couldn't quite identify convinced me that this little gingerbread house was just the place to score an interesting dinner to go.
My housemates and I had ingested way too many pizzas during the baseball play-offs and the World Series. Inspired by the change of seasons, I had set out to find something different for an evening of televised football. Cruising up Hillcroft, I ruled out shawarmas, dosas, kabobs, Indo-Chinese curry, chicken tikka masala croissants, Pakistani goat and quasi-Cajun poor boys. I settled on empanadas both because they were vaguely football-shaped and because a fellow customer at the front counter at Marine's told me I was making a wise decision.
3227 Hillcroft, 713-789-2950. Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.
Chicken and rice: $7
Bandeja paisa: $9
The guy in front of me in line said he was a Colombian-American fish wholesaler and that this was his favorite Colombian restaurant in the city. The empanadas are great, he told me. But it was the rest of the menu that he really raved about. "The chicken and rice is incredible," he said as a waitress walked by with a well-mounded plate of the yellow rice. While I ordered up a bunch of empanadas to go, I was already plotting another visit.
Marine's menu features 47 flavors of empanadas. I composed a South American smorgasbord including the beef, barbecued beef, sirloin and mushrooms, chicken, and chicken with mushrooms and wine sauce varieties. I also got some unusual-sounding empanadas like the Pancho Villa, stuffed with mozzarella, cheddar and a roasted jalapeño, and the "hippie," filled with salami, fried onion and raisins.
Marine's empanadas are made to order and served hot out of the deep fryer. The pastry on these fried pies manages to taste rich and stay flaky without being too greasy. Each empanada is about the size of a small sandwich, so three of them make a satisfying meal. The complexity of the well-seasoned beef and chicken empanadas went over fairly well with the football fans, but little bones in the chicken and gristle in the beef drew occasional complaints. If you eat the fat on a steak, you may not mind some in your empanada. Otherwise you might want to stick to the more sandwichlike stuffings.
The gooey cheese and chile-flavored Pancho Villa and the sweet and meaty salami-stuffed hippie empanadas, for instance, were much more to everybody's liking. Fugazetta, a combination of mozzarella and caramelized onions, was a runaway favorite. Asparagus and spinach pies were a little dull for my tastes. And the barbecue sauce in the barbecued beef turned out to be way too sweet. The biggest loser of all was a pizza empanada that tasted like it was filled with nothing but red sauce.
Half of the empanadas at Marine's are filled with something sweet. While South America's meat-filled empanadas remind me of England's steak and cheddar pasties, or Jamaica's savory ground meat pates, the fruit-filled ones are more like the fried pies at Southern convenience stores -- except that the empanadas are piping hot and freshly fried. Pineapple, peach, mango, guava and apricot are a few of Marine's fruit flavors. I am a fan of the apricot.
There are also more elaborate dessert empanadas, including the incredibly rich "banana with dulce de leche," which is filled with bananas in caramel sauce, and "banana Boston," which adds chocolate chips to that mix. These are too sweet for me, but my teenage daughter and her friends love them.
My football-night experiment was a huge success. The South American fried pies are an ideal grab-it-and-go dinner, my tablemates concluded, mainly because there's so much variety. And at $2.25 apiece, you can feed a crowd for about the same price you'd pay for pizza.
I was never enamored of the Colombian national dish bandeja paisa, a mixed grill of beef and thick, baconlike chicharrones, served with fried plantain and topped with a sunny-side-up egg, until I tried the Marine's rendition. Their juicy and well-seasoned version of the steak, bacon and egg dish has become one of my favorite mid-afternoon breakfasts on the weekend. (It's available all day, and they'll add a second fried egg if you ask for it.)
The breakfast is even better with one of Marine's licuados (smoothies). You can stick with such tried-and-true flavors as banana, peach and mango, or go wild with tropical fruits that you've never heard of. Maracuya (passionfruit) tastes like orange juice with a Mexican papaya aftertaste, guanabana is tart, lulo tastes like a cross between honeydew and kiwi, and blood-red mora has a funky bite. Tomate de arbol ("tree tomato") tastes more like creamy orange juice than V8.
The humbly named chicken and rice at Marine's is sensational, as the Colombian-American fish dealer promised. It's meatier and more highly seasoned than any version I've ever had. The breaded pork chop called a chuleta is pounded thin and fried crisp. It's not bad with thick, emulsified chimichurri sauce slathered over top. Perhaps the most comforting dish I've eaten at Marine's is a soup called ajiaca. Unfortunately, the pleasantly thick stew of chicken and Colombian yellow potatoes is served only on Mondays.
A friend and I were eating ajiaca on a Monday night at Marine's when he pointed to a sign on the wall advertising "monkey juice," made from pineapple, banana and coconut. That and a menu item called the Viva Zapata empanada (refried beans, cheddar and jalapeños) jogged his memory. Both of these items were once served at an empanada stand called Marini's that was located on Westheimer near "the curve" back in the 1970s, he said.
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Marini's was run by an Argentine family, and it was among the first South American restaurants in town. It was also a favorite hangout for high school- and college-age Houstonians of the era. Unfortunately, Marini's burned down in the mid-1980s. Several attempts to relocate the restaurant failed.
So what's the relationship between this place and the old Marini's? We summoned Yiredt Delgado, the owner, to our table and attempted to set the record straight as best we could in half Spanish and half English. This restaurant was originally a franchise of Marini's, she said. But when Marini's went out of business, she changed the name. Since she and her clientele were Colombian, she started serving Colombian dishes along with the empanadas. This February, Marine's Empanadas will be 15 years old. And it may be the most popular Colombian restaurant in town.
In the course of writing this review, a strange coincidence came to light. A restaurant called Original Marini's Empanada House (3522 South Mason Road) has recently opened in Katy's Cinco Ranch neighborhood. It is owned by none other than Sergio "Alex" Marini, the son of the old Westheimer Marini's founders, Leonilda and Marcello Marini, who also are helping out at the new spot. The new restaurant reportedly features the same monkey juice and Viva Zapata empanadas that were originally concocted at the Westheimer location in the 1970s.
No doubt there are lots of other menu similarities between Marine's Empanadas at Richmond and Hillcroft and the freshly resurrected Original Marini's Empanada House in Katy. That's because the two restaurants share a much-beloved common ancestor. And both are helping to keep the fond memories alive.