Food Nation

Stuffed: Colombian Empanadas at La Fogata

Photo by Carlos Brandon
Grab a couple of these golden beauties at La Fogata off Wilcrest and Southwest Freeway
We set out to find and devour stuffed food from every possible culture right here in the Bayou City. From empanadas to dumplings, kolaches to samosas, we're getting stuffed.

Ah, the empanada. The universal street food of Latin America. Every major cuisine south of the Rio Grande has its own version of this savory (sometimes sweet) stuffed pastry. Probably because the empanada is a colonial hand-me-down. The dish traces its roots to medieval Spain. Centuries later, those foodie Conquistadors were kind enough to spread their culinary heritage all over the new world — along with healthy servings of genocide.

Today, empanadas are the one unifying dish across all Latin cultures. In Houston, where those cultures come together in a melting pot of cuisines and lifestyles, a person can find most varieties in one corner of the city or another. The first empanada on our worldly tour of stuffed food comes straight from the Colombian countryside to the streets of Southwest Houston.

La Fogata is a hole in the wall Colombian kitchen in a nondescript strip mall off Wilcrest Drive and the Southwest Freeway. The family owned mom-and-pop is as authentic as it gets. Famous for their traditional bandeja paisa, a huge lunch or dinner platter of rice and beans, skirt steak, fried plantains, chicharron, avocado, sausage and arepa, the small eatery also serves an extensive menu of other Colombian staple foods. Most common among them, the crunchy-shelled fried empanadas.

click to enlarge Two empanadas and a fresh mango smoothie, we'll take seconds to go. - PHOTO BY CARLOS BRANDON
Two empanadas and a fresh mango smoothie, we'll take seconds to go.
Photo by Carlos Brandon
Unlike the soft flour-dough empanadas of Mexico, Argentina and Spain, the Colombian meat pie is made of a corn-flour shell that is deep fried until crunchy and hard. The empanadas at La Fogata are served straight out of the fryer and, as such, should be cracked with a fork and knife before eating to avoid searing mouth pain. The cloud of steam that escapes upon cracking will be a sign of your narrowly avoided suffering.

The pastry's stuffing is a traditional preparation of potatoes, ground beef, onions and seasoning. The savory mix is churned into a mashed potato-like consistency, creating a nice texture contrast against the flaky, crunchy shell. The appetizer is served with a side of not at all spicy Colombian salsa and a plastic spoon to bathe your empanadas with. The acidic room temperature salsa tempers the heat of the dish and adds needed moisture, soaking into both the shell and the stuffing.

While the empanada is a traditionally small dish, served with coffee for breakfast or as an appetizer before a larger meal, a few of these are a perfectly filling lunch. Grab three or four to go and you're set for the day. This author also enthusiastically recommends one of the housemade fresh fruit juices. The mango smoothie is a particular favorite among customers, and the perfect compliment to a pair of steaming empanadas.

La Fogata is a diamond in the rough in its off-putting, freeway adjacent location. South of Alief, just outside the beltway, it may be a little out of the way for some of our inner-loop dwellers and northside commuters. Yet, if you find yourself in its vicinity on an empty stomach, the family run kitchen is an authentic experience worth savoring. Like so many of our city's immigrant owned hole in the wall eateries, it is hard to beat on taste, value, and authenticity.