Food Fight: Battle Empanadas

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It's not often that we get so grossed out by a certain food item that we nearly immediately throw it in the garbage, walk away from the entire plate and go off to sulk angrily, our appetites lost for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, that very thing happened during the course of this week's Food Fight. But we're getting ahead of ourselves...

It having been a good two weeks since we were able to do the weekly Food Fight, we were eager to jump back into Houston's enormous culinary pool. Taking a tip from our friend Dr. Ricky, we kept this food fight on the ethnic side, but also on the affordable one.

Traditional Argentinean empanadas are one of our favorite foods, both as a mid-day or mid-morning snack (we're part Hobbit) or as a full meal. We really like any snack-size food pockets -- what's not to love about them? -- such as pierogie, Indian samosas, bánh xèo or kibbeh, but empanadas happen to be the most portable of the lot. The great thing about Argentinean empanadas -- as opposed to Tex-Mex-style empanadas -- is that they're baked, not fried, making them both healthier and easier to eat on the run. No grease here.

The other wonderful thing is that even traditional empanadas come stuffed with a variety of ingredients, making them an excellent option for our many vegetarian and pescetarian friends. Humita -- fresh corn with sauteed onion, peppers and spices -- is one of the most popular and enduring fillings, and happens to be our favorite. Spinach is also a traditional ingredient, but the heartiest empanadas are the gaucho-style stuffed with ground beef and hard-boiled eggs, or the jamon y queso, stuffed with thick chunks of ham and provolone cheese.

Manena's Pastry Shop and Deli, 11018 Westheimer

In our review of Manena's back in May 2009, we described how the sense of suddenly being in Buenos Aires hits you as soon as you walk through the door -- no longer in a dingy strip center, you're surrounded by cheerful yellow walls, CNN en Español, a pastry case full of alfajores and tiramisu, signs in Spanish and the happy chattering of expat Argentineans. It's like taking a brief vacation, if only during your lunch break. In short, we love Manena's.

The empanadas are cheap here: $1.90 each, no matter which filling you choose. Manena's only offers a limited selection, but that's because the menu contains other Argentinean delicacies to choose from, and the selection that is offered is briefly yet divinely traditional. We chose the gaucho, the jamon y queso and the humita and settled into a wooden booth while we waited for our order.

While the humita has always been our favorite, reminding us of the sweet corn casserole our mother used to make, the gaucho has been steadily gaining on it. And yesterday, it finally tied up the game. It was dripping with juices as we bit into one end, the mixture of beef, white onions, green onions and spices like cumin and paprika all humming together in one dusky, tangy symphony. The humita was as sweetly vegetal as always, while only the bland jamon y queso was a disappointment.

The Original Marini's Empanada House, 10001 Westheimer, #2570

Marini's has been in the empanada game for longer than we've been alive. Originally located in Montrose, the family brought Argentinean empanadas to Houston back when even regular Mexican food was still considered an exotic delicacy. The restaurant has moved locations several times since then, finally settling into the Carillion Center in Westchase with a satellite operation in Katy.

We've never understood why the Carillion Center wasn't more populated, with its artful and distinct architecture, pedestrian-friendly layout and location in a bustling business and residential area. We're just happy to see some of our favorite places settle in there to stay, such as Masala Wok, Thai Village and Sabine River Cafe. Marini's has taken up its space next to Starbucks with aplomb, transforming the interior into a shady, pleasant approximation of an Argentinean cafe, complete with the same retinue of expats that populate Manena's.

We got the same assortment of empanadas as we did at Manena's. "Going Argentinean all the way, I see?" laughed the cheerful woman at the cash register. The smell of the freshly baked pockets -- an even more intense version of the aroma outside the Sunbeam Bakery on Washington -- nearly drove us mad as we transported the empanadas back to our office. Unpacking them from the styrofoam container, we dove straight into the humita first.

It was more than slightly disappointing. Instead of the amalgamation of corn, onions, peppers and sweet sauce we normally expect, it was simply kernels of corn in a cheesy mixture of mozzarella and provolone. We should have paid closer attention to the menu, it seems, which has been broadly Americanized to include more than 50 different fillings ranging from "Texan barbeque" to "pizza." The jamon y queso was actually much better, with thicker and meatier chunks of ham than Manena's and a pleasant mozzarella-provolone blend. But then everything went off the rails.

Breaking open the last empanada -- the gaucho -- we were horrified to see a giant, black hair sticking out from the crust. We tugged at it, desperate to get it out of our food, only to find that it was firmly embedded into the dough. We took it to our editorial assistant, Blake Whitaker, like wimps, begging him to please see if he could pull it out. He had no luck, either. The hair was in there fast and good. We don't intend to cast aspersions on the cleanliness of Marini's facilities, since this could easily happen in any kitchen -- professional or at home. But we had a really tough time taking a bite of the opposite end of our gaucho empanada to compare it. And after all that, it wasn't nearly as good as Manena's version, being much drier and blander.

The Winner

Manena's won this food fight, even before the discovery of the hair in our gaucho empanada from Marini's. But it wasn't an easy battle. The dough and the shell of the empanadas themselves are much better at Marini's. That fact remains. They're flaky and buttery without being overwhelmingly greasy, and contain the ingredients expertly without any seepage. Manena's contain the ingredients just as well, but can tend towards the dry side and certainly don't have any luscious flake to them. The jamon y queso at Marini's is also better, but that's where the competition ends.

At $2.25 apiece, the Marini's empanadas are more expensive and contain less filling than Manena's. And the terribly inauthentic humita and uninspiring gaucho empanadas left us cold. When it comes to empanadas, Manena's still has the magic touch.

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