In June, Sarah's Empanadas will celebrate its 20th anniversary. That's a notable milestone by any measure, but it's even more impressive when you consider that when Sarah Martinez began selling Bolivian empanadas in a little RTP strip mall, the town of Cary was still excited about getting its first Applebee's. In those days, the Triangle's dining scene was not sophisticated enough that you'd expect such an exotic and specialized offer to catch on. Throw in a couple more factors -- that the restaurant is only open Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and that most people who don't work in or live near RTP have probably never heard of the place -- and Sarah's achievement is downright astounding.
To those who have discovered Sarah's Empanadas, the key to the restaurant's success is no secret: well-filled empanadas whose baked pastry crusts are more delicate -- not to mention healthier -- than the more familiar fried empanadas of Mexico. Martinez uses only vegetable shortening in the crust, and offers nine filling options -- all homemade -- for these savory crescent-shaped turnovers. The number of filling choices has expanded over the years, and is no longer strictly Bolivian. According to Martinez, "South American" is more accurate to describe the current offering.
The most popular filling features small chunks of chicken in a mild cheese base that's lightly accented with tomato. I'm partial to picadillo, which is listed simply as "beef" on the menu: an aromatic concoction of ground beef, potatoes, peas and raisins, accented with a bit of Sarah's homemade, spicy-sweet salsa -- the same salsa that's also served on the side as a dip for the empanadas. Spinach with cheese is a vegetarian favorite among a list that also includes broccoli, mushroom, spicy cheese and a delightfully sweet, creamy filling made from freshly cooked corn.
Empanadas are available singly or in mix-and-match combination plates with one or two side dishes. Don't miss the crisp fried yucca. And while you're at it, treat yourself to an apple empanada for dessert. If you need to justify the extra calories, you can always tell yourself you're celebrating Sarah's much-deserved anniversary.
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What: South American empanadas
How much: $2.75 each ($7.50 for 2 empanadas with one side)
Where: Sarah's Empanadas
5410 N.C. 55., in Greenwood Commons, Durham