By Gabe Frayne
The art of inserting a spoonful of meat, vegetables or fruit inside a shell of pastry dough and then baking, frying or steaming it to a delectable finish is one of the great cross-cultural practices of the culinary world.
The Italians have ravioli, the Welsh have pasties. In Russia, it’s the piroshki and in China the list is as long as a dim sum menu.
In the small South American country of Uruguay, wedged between Argentina and the southern tip of Brazil, the humble empanada meets the standard.
This crescent-shaped, oven-baked favorite of the Uruguayan table is typically stuffed with ground beef, onions, olives and raisins and seasoned with pepper and cumin.
Equally popular in Argentina, Chile and Peru, empanadas are simply the most basic comfort food to be found in South America.
“It was an everyday thing in my home. My grandmother lived at home so we used to make empanadas,” recalls Ines Berón, who, with her husband Walter Rodriguez, is co-owner of PDX Empanadas.
The business consists of a food cart and an upstart commercial kitchen for supplying local grocers and private events. “Everybody ate empanadas.”
It is difficult to precisely define the role of empanadas in Uruguayan cuisine as we would, say, a tuna fish sandwich in the American diet. The Instituto Crandon’s Manual de Cocina, considered by many the bible of Uruguayan cooking, relegates the empanada to one paragraph in its appetizer section. It is indeed a fine appetizer, but can also be a main dish, a snack or even a dessert.
Ines and Walter most surely did not imagine that they would one day be selling empanadas to the people of Portland when they met nearly half a century ago.
In the early 1970s, a military dictatorship took control of Uruguay and the young couple fled to the relative safety of Argentina. Two years later, a military coup in Argentina ushered in the Dirty War and quickly convinced the couple to return home to their native land.
They worked at various jobs and eventually started a textile enterprise, but cheap imports put them out of business after 16 years.
“We were over 50 years old and it was very hard to find a job in Uruguay,” Ines recalls. She and her husband pulled up roots once again an emigrated to the United States.
After spending several years in Worcester, MA, where they opened their first empanada business, the couple moved to Portland in 2013 to be near their grown son and daughter. Walter was reluctant, according to Ines, “but once we arrived here he loved Portland immediately.”
At first, Ines was the lonely girl at the dance of Portland’s street food scene. “I didn’t know anything about food carts,” she says, laughing when asked her how she got started. “I never even imagined I’d buy a food cart but my son-in-law was always saying, ‘you should try to sell empanadas in a food cart. It’s going to be good,’ and he was the one who bought the food cart for us.”
PDX Empanadas opened its doors (or windows) at the fabled but now bulldozed food court at SW 4th and Oak downtown. In 2014 they were accepted as members of the Saturday market, which soon became the cart’s new home.
Then in 2017, another unwelcome challenge came their way. As they were leaving the Saturday Market in the dusk of a November day, a truck ran into their cart and completely destroyed it. Ines and Walter took to heart the old adage “the other side of change is opportunity.”
They settled with the insurance, sold the house they still owned in Worcester, secured a loan from Mercy Corps, bought a new food cart and converted a backyard garage into a restaurant-sized kitchen in order to expand their business to groceries and special events. Before long, they were back at Saturday Market and had secured a deal with New Seasons Market to sell frozen, boxed empanadas in their stores.
A curious twist happened along the way too: they became strict vegans. Ines, whose father worked in a slaughterhouse, a perfectly respectable occupation in her beef-eating homeland, claims it was strictly “for health reasons.”
When asked if this was somewhat unusual for Uruguayans, she laughed and said, “Absolutely. I don’t think we are the first ones, but almost the first.”
Today, as society deals with restrictions associated with COVID-19, PDX Empanadas, like other small businesses, is relying on pick-up service.
Its website advertises empanadas filled with pork, beef and cheese, caprese, plant-based caprese (vegan), mushroom (vegan) and a variety of others. For dessert, try the ones filled with quince (a Uruguayan mainstay) and goat cheese.
14911 SE Main St.
Photo by PDX Empanadas