I'm trying to find Houston's best empanadas.
It goes back to my childhood. In 1970s Houston, I was not exposed to much ethnic food. Houston had some Tex Mex, bad Chinese food, some Swiss fondue, Antoine's Imported Foods, and a creperie. Not much else.
At a time before Hot Pockets and Calzones, and before South American food ever came to Houston, an empanada was an exotic thing.
The place to get emapanadas was Marini's Empanada House in the Montrose. Opening in 1971, it was a funky, bohemian joint that served exotic South American food for cheap. Marini's was pretty cool.
The original location burned in 1985. The family did not reopen for years.
When I started to research emapanadas, I learned Marini's has returned.
The new "original" Marini's
The new Marini's has a confusing name -- The Original Marini's Empanada House. It may be operated by the original family, but it is not the original "house."
The new version is a lot less funky. Two locations include Katy and far West Houston on Westheimer. Given its popularity, I expect to see more.
The Westheimer location is in a typical suburban strip center with a Chili's. Inside, this Marini's feels a lot like a Chili's. The walls are covered with chotchkies and brightly colored photos. Or if you have ever seen Office Space -- "flair."
The feel was oddly corporate, like a protype chain restaurant ready to spread nationwide. The clutter on the wall seemed calculated to convey an atmosphere of fun. Just like Chili's, it doesn't work on me.
Yet it must work for some people. On a Tuesday at lunch, Marini's was crowded.
The menu tries to offer something for everyone. There are dozens of international varieties, including Italian Marcello (with pizza sauce, sausage, and mozarella), English (ground beef, peas, worcestershire sauce), and poblano (chicken with mole). There are even more than 20 dessert varieties.
I ordered the most traditional kind of empanada - the "gaucho" which includes ground beef, hard-boiled egg, and olive. And I also ordered one of the fusion empanadas - barbecue beef.
I liked the subtle, unusual flavors inside the gaucho. But I did not like the flavor of the pastry crust. The taste reminded me of fried burritos in elementary school, the same sort of flavor you get from some frozen burritos in convenience stores.
The crust of the savory empanadas does not look very fried. But it has a distinctive fried flavor. Don't get me wrong. Fried foods can be great. But this was a particular kind of fried dough flavor that I have been trying to escape ever since those burritos in 1st grade.
The barbecue beef was a little better, but only because the strong sweet and tangy flavor of the barbecue sauce overwhelmed the flavor of the crust. Yet I did not find much to recommend it over a frozen Hot Pocket.
The dessert was easily the best. It was a tiny, over-the-top, deep-fried empanada with lots of sugar and cherries and a little chocolate. Yet it hardly made up for the main courses.
There is nothing worse than returning as an adult to iconic memories of youth, and then having them smashed. What went wrong? Were Marini's emapanadas better in the 1970s? Or have my tastes have just changed?
Whatever the reason, I am no longer a fan.
Marini's leaves me with questions
As I left, I couldn't help but wonder:
-Do all empanadas have that icky fried flavor?
-If I don't like Marini's, would I like empanadas elsewhere?
Next: These questions are answered at Manenas Pastry Shop and Rustika Cafe & Bakery.