For years, I heard enchanting tales about Tango’s Empanadas. People would return from the beloved Orchard St. establishment gently touching the flakes of fried dough stuck to their upper lips as if they were the shimmering remnants of a magic spell.
To my great shame, I never managed to visit. I ignored the siren song of these Argentinian treats for more than a decade. Just two weeks ago, I finally got my life together and visited Tango’s.
Now, what exactly is an empanada? It is hot meat, cheese, or vegetables fried inside a light and crispy shell of dough. And—Why are you already running toward the restaurant?
If your restaurant primarily sells fried pockets of meat, you have an unsurprisingly vast margin for error. Many grotesque fillings and pathetic pastries can be dumped in a deep fat fryer and made decent by default. But decent isn’t good enough for Tango’s. They won’t rest until they explode your entire flavor universe. And, oh boy, do they ever.
The “Gaucho”, billed as the “the original from Argentina”, brought out the best in ground beef. Green olives, onions, and bell pepper provided a balance of sweet and umami flavors.
The “Mohleh” offered something more recognizable: shredded chicken bathed in a sauce made of peanuts, chili peppers, and chocolate. It was a tasty morsel, if a little sweet.
My companions ordered an array of vegetarian and cheese empanadas. Judging from the guttural noises around the table, they were every bit as pleased as me.
The dessert empanadas are stupendous. I inhaled toasty pockets of chocolate, banana, caramel, and apple cinnamon. I tried to enjoy the “Guava”, which boldly pairs tropical fruit with mozzarella cheese, but the fruit was artificial and it clashed with the coagulating mozzarella.
Tango’s succeeds so massively because they approach a deep-fried pocket with a practiced, purposeful subtlety. The dough, thin and gluten based, is as light as a wonton wrapper.
Tango’s also makes a solid sub, but when there are dozens of inventive empanadas available, the opportunity cost of filling up on a sandwich is simply too high.
Eating at Tango’s is good for the soul, and even better for your wallet. Empanadas cost $2.50 or $3.00. One might become blissfully stuffed for $10.00. At a different, more cynical establishment, these deep-fried wonders might be perverted into a $16 appetizer.
There’s something about empanadas that feels analogous to television. TV shows are uniquely gratifying because the characters never change, but the plot is never anticipated. Within a predictable framework, the unpredictable happens.
The outside of an empanada will never change. It will always be a warm and golden half-moon. But inside the dough, a hypothetically unlimited combination of ingredients awaits. How many foods can always be comfortingly familiar without ever becoming gratingly repetitive?
Eating your first meal at Tango’s is like watching season one of The Office, and then happily realizing “wait, I have eight more seasons of this!” But instead of hundreds of episodes of television, you are looking forward to 49 types of empanadas. You get to return again, and again, and again until you’ve binged on every one.