Cafe Reviews

Republica Empanada in Mesa: A New Take on Latin American Comfort Food

For those who enjoy the portable perfection of a delicious wrapped snack, there may not be a more satisfying invention than the empanada.

A food that means many things to people all over the globe, the filled turnover could be the savory-sweet and hearty Bolivian variety known as a salteña, the Chilean sort typically stuffed with seafood, or, as in Argentina, the country with which most Americans associate the empanada, a baked savory pastry packed primarily with seasoned ground beef.

At República Empanada, the inviting spot of Latin American comfort food in downtown Mesa, empanadas take on yet another variation: that of a blank canvas, interpreted in new and imaginative ways. And, for now, this South American-style empanadería offers the largest selection in Arizona.

República Empanada comes courtesy of husband-and-wife team and longtime Mesa residents Edmundo and Jinette Meraz. The two sold empanadas from a cart at a local co-op (now closed) before opening their first restaurant three months ago. Jinette serves as the cook, and the couple's son, Marco, takes on the role of general manager.

"We were tempted to go somewhere like Tempe," Marco says. "But we're stuck to Mesa. Mesa is always ready for something new and fresh."

The menu is a comfort-food journey through Latin America, a small listing of dishes inspired by home-cooked meals from Jinette, who moved from Costa Rica to Mesa when she was 7 years old, and Marco's travels in Central and South America.

Naturally, it's heavy on the empanadas, more than 20 savory and sweet creations ranging from straightforward to unusual and priced around $3 each. They're served in white paper bags and come with an excellent fresh and tangy signature green salsa you'll probably find yourself using on just about everything — empanada or otherwise. A very good casing of golden and flaky fried wheat flour dough completes the outstanding empanadas and makes the more average ones better than they otherwise would be.

Like the República Chicken, a rather dry offering of shredded and moderately (too moderately) flavored meat, and the Caribbean-inspired Pernil, a slow-roasted pork that is mouthwateringly moist but, like the chicken, will probably leave you wanting more in the way of seasoning. Then there is the Achiote Potato, an unfortunate empanada with a mushy filling of delicately earthy and slightly peppery mashed potatoes that seem better suited to a supporting role than a starring one.

But consider the excellent Boricua. A variation of arroz con gandules, it's packed with layers of flavor from pernil, rice, pigeon peas, and ham hock cooked with sofrito for a snack-size take on Puerto Rico's most popular dish. And for the classic Cuban sandwich in empanada form, you could do worse than República's Cubana, filled with slow-cooked pork, ham, and mozzarella and lit up with bits of dill pickle.

The best empanadas on the menu are the ones made with Jinette's well-seasoned ground beef, like the El Capitán, a top-notch South American-style creation accented with potato, boiled egg, green olives, and golden raisins for hearty and meaty bites with a touch of sweet. Or better yet, there's the addictive, good ol' U.S. of A. Cheeseburger. Loaded with ground beef and just the right amount of oozy melted cheddar cheese, it's more or less the empanada version of the Hot Pocket, a discovery that makes visualizing a plateful of them in front you while watching Sunday football perfectly natural.

Prior to the empanada meal, you could start with some very good Latin-style appetizers. There are outstanding, well-herbed cassava fries, lightly fried soft and sweet plantains caramelized around the edges, and discs of crisp and golden tostones (green plantains). For a little of each, order the combo platter and dip them into house-made sauces of smooth crema and ranch.

A single empanada could be an appetizer or side dish as well, paired with one of República's handful of full-size salads and Latin-influenced platters. But if you're with friends, splitting these larger entrées up with a meal of empanadas serves as a means to bring some much-welcomed vegetables and rice dishes to the table.

There's a nice, protein-packed salad bulked out with chunky hearts of palm, avocado, chickpeas, boiled egg, and kale with a fresh vinaigrette of cilantro and lime. On the platter side, you'll probably need the help of the aforementioned green salsa to kick up the gallo pinto, a decidedly hearty but rather tedious dish of black beans and rice. For a more multi-flavored endeavor, there's the classic Latin American dish arroz con pollo. Featuring a plentiful mound of chicken and rice in a nicely seasoned tomato sauce along with capers, olives, celery, onions, and red bell peppers, it's easily — along with the restaurant's top empanadas — one of the most satisfying and comforting dishes on the menu.

Temper your intake of the savory empanadas if you want to make room for some of the dessert kind — pretty much all of them are winners. There is an acceptable combo of warm sweet guava and cream cheese, and a better, more sophisticated, empanada stuffed with figs, mozzarella cheese, and South American-style dulce de leche. But the best of the bunch might be the familiar Nutella and banana creation. More or less a French dessert crepe run through a Latin American kitchen, its flaky fried casing serves as a kind of delectable crunchy crust. Adding on the optional vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce pretty much goes without saying.

Located in the Southside Heights neighborhood of downtown Mesa, República Empanada's sleek midcentury building makes for a stylish spot to consume a food with a history thousands of years old. Here, the restaurant's mix of Colombian, Costa Rican, and other Latin American guests, along with the Anglo set, are welcomed into a room bathed in natural light, cut with a long community table running down its center, and highlighted with décor items like a huge, brightly colored mural of an Arizona landscape and a chalkboard wall with sayings such as "going with the flow is soothing but risky" and "viva Mesa."

Along with the friendly servers, a member or two of the Meraz family is usually on the floor, chatting with guests, cluing them in on restaurant's impending liquor license, and excitedly letting them know about some of the new dishes they have planned.

Chances are you'll be back to check in on their progress.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld