Empanadas, Salteñas & Hamburgers
by Steve Baker
Empanadas & Salteñas are essentially small, hand-held meat or cheese filled pastries, much like Jamaican meat pies or Eastern Caribbean roti's.
We are currently spending some time in Florida, so I am going through withdrawal! This is true even though my wife makes a mean empanada and delicious salteñas. I just can't get her to make them often enough, and both of these wonderful foods are almost completely unknown in the US (especially salteñas). But I have to admit that good pizza and hamburgers offer a little fast-food compensation.
Empanadas, as I understand them, come originally from Spain. They are fried and, most often, contain local farmer's cheese and covered with a little powdered sugar. They can also contain a kind of chicken or beef stew. My favorites are made at home. Empanadas are eaten all day long, especially at tea. They never contain fruit, which is sometimes used to produce dessert empanadas in the US.
To me, the best commercial empanadas are found at Fridolin and Las Cazuelas. Both places use nothing but breast meat in their chicken empanadas. Fridolin uses a salteñas-type filling (see below), while Las Cazuelas fills theirs with almost nothing but chicken.
Salteñas are Bolivian in origin, though the inventor is said to be a woman from Salta, Argentina. Salteñas are baked instead of fried. Otherwise, they are much like empanadas, except that the crust has to be a little thicker and is flakier. Also, they are eaten only in the morning. I would love for places to start making and selling them all day long, because they are a wonderful fast-food.
As for fillings, the cheese variety does not exist, so salteñas are filled with a juicy chicken or beef stew-like concoction (meat, potatoes, spices, and maybe a few peas, an olive, a raisin, or a little egg). There are both picante and non-picante varieties. My wife, having lived for a while in La Paz, prefers the picante, while sissies like me eat the other. When beef is used, it seems that it is always hamburger.
So let me say a few things about hamburger in Bolivia--it is universally awful! Hamburgers themselves are a combination of ingredients intended to cheapen them. I find even the best hamburgers to be absolutely terrible. Toby's and almost every other restaurant or food cart use Fridosa frozen hamburgers, which contain (I would guess) 10% beef. Burger King hamburgers are almost as bad. I never eat the beef empanadas or salteñas, and most locals seem to feel the same way. Why eat mystery meat when the cheese and shredded chicken are wonderful?
I think the best commercial salteñas can be found at Hamacas, Los Castores, and the El Cristo Supermercado on Monseñor Rivera. Hamacas has franchises all over Santa Cruz, so you are always close to one, and they do a wonderful job. Their crust can be a little thick at times, but it is always light and flaky. I've eaten hundreds of them, and never come across one yucky piece of chicken, just well-trimmed breast meat, perfectly spiced. Hamacas has great quality control!