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.
In the second week of this series we introduced you to the crunchy, beefy goodness of the Colombian empanada. This week, we head back to the empanada well, so to speak, to explore an entirely different iteration of this universal dish.
The Marini family has been serving authentic, handmade Argentinian empanadas to Houstonians since 1971. Marcello and Pelusa Marini, who emigrated from Argentina with their children in the 1960s, opened their first empanada house on the Montrose side of Westheimer after health services were called on them for selling the pastries out of their home. Two decades later, that original location would burn down and Houston would temporarily lose one of its greatest culinary treasures. In 2004, members of the Marini family managed to resurrect the once lost business by opening the Original Marini's Empanada House in Katy, a modern revival of the old Montrose location. Three years later, a second Marini's was opened — this time back on Westheimer in the Westchase district.
Over the past 15 years, both locations have managed to bring the famous Marini empanadas roaring back from the ashes of that first kitchen; even landing a spot in a 2017 episode of Diners, Drive Ins and Dives.
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Unlike the tightly packed corn maza of the Colombian empanada, the Argentinian variety is made of a soft flour dough, stretched and folded over sweet or savory filling giving them their characteristic crimped edges. Both locations' menus feature over 40 versions of the traditional pies. Some are filled with ground beef and onions, some with chicken and mozzarella, some with diced apples and dulce de leche. The most traditionally authentic dish on the menu is the ground beef "gaucho" — the essential empanada of Argentina. This beautiful pouch of fried dough is filled with heavily seasoned ground beef, chopped hard-boiled egg, olives and onions. It is a doughy, greasy, beefy punch in the palate that will both fill you up and keep you wanting more.
As outstanding as the entire menu of savory empanadas is, the real reason to visit Marini's is dessert. If the entire menu was comprised only of the family's sweet empanada recipes, the business would be no less successful. From single filling varieties like peach, cherry and apricot to family specialties like Apple Gabriela — an unexpected combination of diced apples, dulce de leche and cream cheese — the powdered-sugar-topped pies challenge any assumption of what an empanada is or should be.
The empanada is a dish too often placed in a small, one-dimensional box. Yes, the traditional beef version seen on appetizer menus around Latin America is a classic and indelible part of Latino cuisine. Yet, the empanada can be so much more. It can be a handheld calzone filled with marinara sauce and mozzarella, a Tex-Mex meat pie filled with tender smoked brisket, or a fried dessert pie filled with apple and covered in sugar. At Marini's Empanada House you can eat all of the above and dozens more. Both family owned and operated a restaurants are both an education in the versatility of the empanada and Houston gems in their own right.