A Wealth of Vegetarian Options Awaits at Empanada Mama Express


The Veggielante is on a mission to spread the word about places to order good, meatless grub. Check out this week’s pick.

Destination: Empanada Mama Express (189 East Houston Street, 212-673-0300)

Neighborhood: LES

Cuisine: Latin

Overview: After the first Manhattan location of Empanada Mama drew unrelenting crowds and takeaway customers to Hell’s Kitchen for the restaurant’s freshly folded and fried empanadas, the owner decided to open a second, smaller location in the Lower East Side a year and a half ago. Empanada Mama Express is slightly different from its northern sibling — the older Empanada Mama is open 24/7, while the LES shop’s hours are 10 a.m. to 5 a.m. And there, two women — referred to as the “empanada elves” — arrive daily at 6 a.m. to make all of that day’s empanadas.

Empanadas are a South American staple, made differently region by region. Here, the crimped pockets adhere not so much to any one country’s tradition as they serve as vehicles for global flavors. You’ll find flavor combinations rooted in Colombia and Italy, Brazil and Greece.

Highlights: You’ll need two empanadas if you just want to munch on something; if you’re starving, ask for three or four. Many of the options here are vegetarian, so you’ll be able to get variety. We went with Empanada Mama’s classic pizza empanada ($2.75 at the LES location/$2.85 at the Hell’s Kitchen location), which is made with wheat flour, stuffed with cheese and pizza sauce, and fried. The wheat dough is flaky and soft — a savory pastry — and together, the package tastes exactly like, well, a slice of cheese pizza.

We also dug into the very popular broccoli and cheese empanada ($2.65 at the LES location/$2.75 at the Hell’s Kitchen location), which is made from a fried corn flour pocket — making it gluten free — that packs a major crunch and isn’t easy to eat with a fork and knife. You’re better off picking it up with your hands and biting right in. It’s an entirely different empanada experience, and while wheat pockets are more traditional — and more popular here — the corn is worth a try.

Empanada Mama Express also has dessert empanadas ($2.85 at the LES location/$2.95 at the Hell’s Kitchen location), a cheese arepa ($6 at the LES location/$6.25 at the Hell’s Kitchen location), and an option to make your own arepa from a slew of vegetarian ingredients.