Hand pie high five

Coloradans embrace empanadas and their crust-wrapped cousins

Susan France

Something makes us love almost anything wrapped in dough across the globe, whether they are called samosas, pierogi, fried pies, turnovers, calzones, tiropita, bao, piroshki, pasties, runzas or patties. 

While bakeries and restaurants crafting traditional round pies are becoming rare, places dishing savory and sweet hand pies are multiplying by the day along the Front Range. If your only hand-pie experiences involve Pop-Tarts and Hostess Fruit Pies, be prepared for a revelation. 

It’s argentina in colorado

Leading the way are empanadas, the ubiquitous pastry from Latin and South America and especially Argentina. Baked or fried, flaky, bready or crunchy, in diverse shapes and fillings, it’s no secret why empanadas are popular. You just get more crust per bite. They are portable, self-contained, retain heat and were born to accompany beer, wine, cider and cocktails. 

“At some restaurants you get the one plate of food you order, like it or not. With empanadas you get two or three kinds, and you share with friends and get lots of flavors,” says Christian Saber, the Buenos Aires-born co-owner of Boulder’s Rincon Argentina. 

The shop serves a dozen or more varieties, all handmade in different, distinctive shapes. The best-selling No. 3 Gaucho is filled with ground beef, caramelized onions, red bell pepper and raisins. My favorites are the No. 1 Tradicional (with steak, onions, red bell pepper and green olives) and the No. 12 Patagonia, invented by Saber’s Italian mom, with just garlic, tomato and Parmesan.  

“Nothing is ever spicy in Argentina but customers started coming in with their own hot sauce,” Saber says, adding that he offers three dipping sauces including traditional chimichurri, a perky blend of parsley, oregano, olive oil, red pepper and garlic.  

Saber is also partners with his brother, Francois, in Denver’s Lazo Empanadas, which focuses on the authentic dough-wrapped treats offered at a restaurant near Coors Field. Traditional empanadas are also available at Argentos Empanadas in Silverthorne. Erie-based Gaucho de Argentina uses dough from Argentina for non-traditional mac and cheese, chorizo and egg, and cheesecake empanadas available at Lucky’s Market.  

When I stopped at Denver’s Maria Empanada on South Broadway with an old friend on a Sunday afternoon, all I wanted was an espresso and a bite to eat. Specifically, I craved the Denver omelet-esque Tango — flaky dough encircling sweet onions, ham, bell pepper and mozzarella. 

Instead, I got transported to a passionate place as a pair of exceptional professional tango dancers took over the space. Elegant tango music filled the dining room, and we filled ourselves with funghi-jammed mushroom pastries and memorable pear and Marsala empanadas. Maria Empanada also has locations at the Denver Tech Center and Stanley Marketplace. 

A Continent Full of Empanadas

The empanada’s origins may be in Greece, Persia and Turkey with side trips to Spain and England. “If you talk to people in South America, everybody — Venezuelans, Colombians and Cubans — they all say they invented empanadas,” Saber says with a broad grin. 

You can taste the wide world of empanadas within a short drive of Boulder. Better yet, take a bike ride. The empanada trail is fraught with carbs and calories.    

Mexican empanadas use a pie crust-like dough and tend to be sweet. I’m a fan of the pineapple and pumpkin empanadas at Boulder’s Panaderia Sabor a Mexico and Panaderia Guanajuato in Longmont. Also open in Longmont is Abuelita’s Empanadas, serving sweet and savory versions. The Peruvian variation is sold at Denver’s Azucar Bakery.

In Denver, you can also sample smaller empanadas encased in a crispy, fried white-corn envelope. La Chiva offers Colombian empanadas filled with things like barbecue pork. Empanada Express Grill’s Venezuelan half-moons are filled with meat or seafood. Try the Sweet Domino with black beans and sweet plantain. 

It’s Pronounced Pass-tee

The British-born pasty is like a bigger empanada and meant to be a meal inside a thicker-crust envelope. Shamane’s Bake Shoppe in Boulder produces flaky savory breakfast pasties as well as one filled with Colorado bison. Denver’s Pasty Republic offers pasties ranging from the traditional Drover (lamb, leek, mint and potato) to The Swirl (Nutella, peanut butter and cream cheese). 

Guinness steak and onion hand pies are on the menu at St. Vrain Market in Lyons. The flaky hand pies at Denver’s Hinman’s Bakery run the gamut from sweet cherry to spicy pork green chile.

The hand-pie tent is big enough to include Turkish boreks at Boulder’s Breakfast Champion bakery, Jamaican beef patties at Denver’s Jamaican Grill, and runzas — German-Russian baked bread pockets filled with ground beef, cabbage and onions in variations including BLT — at Loveland’s Runza Restaurant.   

Top-notch round mini-pies are also proliferating at My Mom’s Pies in Niwot and Lafayette’s Eats & Sweets. Tip Top Savory Pies in Lafayette makes New Zealand-style savory round pies and now, swell peach hand pies. 

Local Food News

There are little things you can do to pay it forward. Food to fill food banks will be collected by Community Food Share April 26-28 at King Soopers in Louisville, Lafayette and Longmont. Cash donations encouraged. … Don’t plant anything until Mother’s Day, but do grow a row for Fresh Food Connect and donate produce to feed others. boulderfoodrescue.org/fresh-food-connect. … Just go out to dinner May 2 and 25 percent of sales will be donated to Project Angel Heart, which delivers healthy meals to those dealing with life-threatening diseases. More than 200 restaurants will participate including Avery Brewing and Blackbelly, and Denver’s Vesta, Ash’Kara, Root Down and Osaka Ramen. diningoutforlife.com

Words to Chew On

“I’ve cooked and cooked till I done got tired. Can’t fill you up off of my fried apple pie.” — “Keep on Eating“ by Memphis Minnie  

John Lehndorff is a pie expert. He hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU. Podcasts: news.kgnu.org/category/radio-nibbles