Apparently, empanadas inflame passions. The commenters to my last post seem to care a lot about the Marini's vs. Manena's comparison, even before I finished making it.
Perhaps that should not be a surprise. Marini's Empanada House and Manena's Pastry Shop are destined to be competitors. They have similar names. They are both on Westheimer, about 2 blocks apart. Marini's is just inside the Beltway, Manena's just outside.
The feel is completely different. Whereas Marini's feels at home in its suburban strip mall along side chain restaurants, Manena's feels like a real bakery. Much of the staff and many customers were Latin.
But the difference that matters is in the empanada.
Unlike Marini's, which serves dozens of international varieties, Manena's only serves six traditional varieties. And Manena's price is a little cheaper. I ordered a beef and a spinach. I hat to take them to go because all 10 tables were full.
The beef filling had the same ingredients and flavors as Marini's gaucho empanada. The big difference was the pastry crust.
Manena's empanadas have a more delicate, baked crust. It is toothsome and it holds the empanada together, without falling apart. The crust's flavor compliments, rather than distracts, from the filling.
Yes, I realized, I really do like empanadas.
In Argentina, empanadas may be baked or fried. Typically, restaurants and bakeries bake them. At festivals, they are fried.
One commentor said that Manena's empanadas were greasier than Marini's. I found the opposite to be true. But more importantly, it was the flavor of the Marini's empanada crust that completely turned me off.
Ultimately, it may be a matter of personal preference. Some folks may prefer Marini's. That burrito-like fried flavor may not bother them.
To me, there was no competition. Manena's serves the best empanadas I have tried in Houston -- so far.
[Update: I just noticed that Katharine Shillcutt wrote a much longer report on Manena's last week in the Houston Press. It is worth reading.]
Rustika Cafe & Bakery
Rustika, on Southwest Freeway near Buffalo, deserves an honorable mention. Their empanadas are also baked. The breading is thicker and grainier. It tastes like whole wheat flour.
The ground beef empanadas have slightly different fillings -- ground beef, corn, carrots and no egg. The flavor is good, if not quite as exotic. The chicken mole empanadas are even better.
My only complaint was the method of re-heating. Rustika's empanadas sit in the bakery counter from breakfast time. They are re-heated by microwave. As a result, the grainy crust tends to get soggy and fall apart. You really need to eat these with a fork, which takes away some of the fun.
I would love to try a Rustika empanada right out of the oven. That might be a worthy competitor to Manena's.
A lot of commenters have suggested I try other empanadas-- Tuttopane, Americas, Catalan, and Ruggles Green's "hempenadas."
I can't wait to try them all.