As a kid in his native Havana, Kuba Cabana’s Jorge Mas ate empanadas daily: a guava-and-cheese version served as meriendas, or snacks, during his school day. Today, Mas — a corporate chef at UMG Hospitality Group, the restaurant group to which Kuba Cabana belongs — channels that dish’s rich history into a slate of some of the best empanadas in the city.
There’s no better time to check it out than today, which just so happens to be National Empanada Day.
“Empanadas for us are very important because they’re part of the community,” Mas tells InsideHook. He remembers his grandmother making them from her home in Cuba’s San Juan de los Yeras, in Villa Clara, filling their innards with leftovers of all kinds. His own favorites include seafood empanadas filled with flaky fish in a spicy tomato sauce and those aforementioned guava-and-cheese empanadas of yore. Like Mas himself, many people have memories of the food as strong as his own — of family, of parties, of the warmth only a beloved and lovingly prepared food can bring.
The empanada’s origins stretch back 500 years to Galicia, Spain, where they were an easy-to-eat meal for farmers working throughout the day. The original empanadas were prepared in a much larger format — almost like a large, bread-wrapped pie, served as a slice or a square. The word “empanada” actually comes from the verb “empanar” which in Spanish means “to roll or cover.” In fact, empanadas are still made this way in Galicia, and still eaten by farmers, filling a dough of yeasted wheat with meat or seafood (often chicken, fish or octopus) that is also combined with bell peppers, garlic and sautéed onions.
But as Spanish culture spread in the age of European colonialism and beyond, the empanada traveled and took on new forms in Latin America, the Caribbean and parts of Asia like Indonesia and the Philippines. Versions of the food vary geographically, and you’ll find different preparations, doughs, fillings and even sizes across continents, from Bolivian salteñas to Ecuadorian empanadas de viento. Whether a dough is made of corn or wheat or mashed yuca, its fillings savory or sweet, or countless other options in every category, the empanada we know best is often served fried or baked, and many can be held in just one hand.
Both creativity and tradition run deep when it comes to empanadas. At restaurants like Kuba Cabana, where “old world Cuba meets modern Miami,” such an idea is always at work — especially on National Empanada Day. Since its 2020 opening, Kuba Cabana has blended both Latin American and Caribbean flavors, an approach it applies to its empanadas as well. “People know empanadas, people like to eat empanadas, and seem to be very enjoyable by bringing a lot of memories,” he says. “It’s very important for us to have [them] on our menu.”
This year, Kuba Cabana celebrates National Empanada Day with some special additions to the menu: a picadillo empanada made with ground beef, tomato sofrito, onions, garlic, pepper, raisins and green olives and served with an herb mayo; a shredded chicken empanada made with roasted red peppers and a tomato sofrito served with red pepper aioli; a timba empanada with queso blanco and a spiced guava dipping sauce; and a medianoche empanada with ham, Swiss cheese, roasted pork and pickles, with a garlic-mustard aioli. The latter is the restaurant’s take on the classic Cuban medianoche sandwich, executed with a modern, one-handed spin.
“We try to do our empanadas as more classic and to the history, to our culture,” Mas says. “We’re making our empanadas with flavors that everybody knows.“
Whether filled with a classic protein or one of the specials, all of Mas’s empanadas are made with a flour-based dough and deep fried in a traditional Cuban style, filled to the brim and big enough to eat two for a meal. At the restaurant’s CityPlace Doral location today, the National Empanada Day special offers two empanadas for $10 — making it, if briefly, the best deal in town.
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