I have a soft spot in my heart for Lelia’s chicken empanadas. I’ll never forget the day I discovered her eatery. It was after a long night of partying where I had to wake up early the next day for work (irresponsible, I know). I walked by her stand a bit delirious, with my head pounding and my stomach growling. I promptly ordered 2 chicken empanadas, scarfed them down and immediately felt my hangover subside.
I went back the next day and gave her a big hug and with a tear in my eye, I told her, “That was the best empanada I’ve ever had, in my entire life…ever. Thank you so much!” I soon became a regular customer and a pretty unforgettable one at that. I took a break from her fried delicacies and I think it broke her heart just a little every time I ran by in my work out gear and shouted “No thank you, I’m on a diet!” Anyway, this is the Bocas Empanada Report of 2013 and I’m back with a vengeance visiting 3 of the greatest empanada spots you’ll find in Bocas Town.
Lelia’s empanada stand is strategically located right outside of the hospital, on the corner of the main street, across from Calypso Apartments. She operates Monday through Friday from 8 am to whenever she feels like it (usually noon). Like I said, she has the best chicken empanadas in the world. It is a wonderful chicken medley cooked in tomato sauce with onions, peppers and garlic, then stuffed into regular flour based dough and fried in scolding hot vegetable oil. She’s also known for her holjaldre (oh-HALL-dray), which is essentially fried dough. It’s the same dough she uses for her chicken empanadas (which is what makes them so good). The hojaldre is a good vegetarian option for those who feel left out of the chicken empanada game.
Lelia is a sweet empanada lady who prides herself in selling her stuff “fresquito and calientito” (super fresh and super hot). She loves being a Jehovah’s Witness and even named her cart after Jehovah (Kisoko Jehovah Diré). When she’s not selling fried goodies, she’s chilling on her farm in Almirante looking after her plantains and beans. So Lelia, why come to your humble little Jehovah shack? “I sell the empanadas fresh and hot at a price that anyone can afford.” Amen. Now onto some funky empanadas that are anything but traditional…
George moved down from Portland, Oregon (USA) after his mom retired and bought property in Bocas. He started dating Norma, a Panama City girl, and she elected to quit her job in the city and move to Bocas. They decided that if they were going to live here, they would need to start a business. George started selling sandwiches on a cart, but although they were delicious, not everyone could afford them. So he decided to take on empanadas since he could make a lot of different kinds of them and be able to sell them for a dollar. They started selling them in bars and on the streets, but eventually secured a location to vend their creations.
The name Taller de Sabor (Workshop of Taste) is a tribute to the experimental nature of their empanadas. Their empanadas are non-traditional. I mean, where else have you seen Coconut Wine Braised Beef with Green Peppers or Teriyaki Chicken with Ginger and Pineapple or a Mini Cheeseburger empanadas? There have been over 30 different flavors attempted at the Workshop of Taste; some went on to become staples, others were total flops, while some were only seasonal and a few were even jokes. There was one time that George made a Vegemite empanada at the request of a group of Australian tourists. Oh, Australians and their vegemite…
Check out the logo of the restaurant and you’ll see a picture of young boy with his hands covered in dough. You see, George went to a very progressive nursery school in Berkeley, California where they would teach the children how to read and do simple math through cooking exercises. The boy on the logo is actually a picture of young George in the midst of what very well may have been his very first empanada experiment. Okay, enough of these new age avant-garde gourmet empanadas, let’s take it back to the most traditional Bocas-style empanadas you can find.
Hilda aka Mima is yet another sweet empanada lady. She started selling empanadas when she became a mother, as a way to provide for her babies. She would sell them in the streets, stopping at the hospital, houses and hotels, before she settled down on the corner of 6th street and Avenida G. After a while the owners of Hawaii Supermarket invited her to sit right outside their store and that’s where she’s been ever since.
Mima sells a lot of things, from fried fish to chicheme (a rice drink), but she is most notable for her minced meat delicacies: el patí (pa-TEE) and la carimañiola (cah-ree-mahn-YOH-la). The patí is a baked ground beef empanada whose name and recipe originate from Jamaica. Mima is of Jamaican ancestry and her patí recipe has been passed down to her through the generations. The ground beef is prepared in a red sauce, often with bread crumbs or club soda crackers andpurée to give the meat stuffing its consistency. The meat is packed into a flour dough and baked. The carimañiola is similar, except the ground beef is packed into a yucca dough and it’s fried. Carimañiolas, as they are known in Panama, you will find across the border in Costa Rica by the name of “enyucados”.
Mima has the best patís and carimañiolas in town. Just head to Super Hawaii around 8 pm on any given night and you’re bound to see people crowded around her table buying up all her home made goodies. In fact, you can find all of these delightful empanada snacks on the same street, which I am now dubbing “Empanada Lane”. Empanada Lane is Avenida G, where the main street bends at Mondo Taitu and heads out of town towards the beaches. Lelia is in front of the hospital, Taller de Sabor is across the street from Habla Ya Spanish School and Mima can be found outside Hawaii Supermarket. Bon appetite empanada lovers!