What Javi’s Cooking: Argentinian-Style Empanadas

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When What the Fork caught up with Javier Sandes last year, he’d just shut down arguably the most badass mobile food business in the Bay Area: Primo’s Parrilla, a streetside operation wherein Sandes grilled beef tri-tips and whole spitchcocked chickens over an open flame on top of said parrilla (an Argentinian-style grill).

The setup was so badass (or at least hard to pin down, as it was neither truck nor restaurant nor conventional food “cart”) that the city of Emeryville cried foul. So Sandes decided he would instead introduce Argentinian asado — i.e. barbecue — to the East Bay through a brick-and-mortar restaurant of his own.

Sandes started scouting out locations, and that was the last we heard from him — until a couple of months ago, when tasty Argentinian-style empanadas began appearing at Room 389 (389 Grand Ave.), the Adams Point watering hole and under-the-radar cafe. A little bit of poking around revealed that, lo and behold, the man behind the empanadas was none other than Sandes, who recently launched a wholesale and catering business called Javi’s Cooking.

Vegetable empanada.
Sandes said he started renting commercial kitchen space at the Uptown food startup incubator The Kitchener in August. Shortly thereafter, he rolled out a new website and started taking orders and catering requests online. The catering menu also features homemade chimichurri sauce, salad, and alfajores (a kind of dulce de leche filled cookie that’s traditional in Argentina). But empanadas form the backbone of the business — six kinds: beef, chicken, ham and cheese (for breakfast), and three different vegetarian versions. All of them have crusts that are soft and chewy with a bit of crunch at the edges — a different animal from, say, the flaky Filipino style you can buy at Sketch Ice Cream.

You can’t go wrong with the classic beef empanada, which has bits of green olive and hard-boiled egg. But I was especially impressed by a vegetable empanada filled with potatoes, green peas, onions, and roasted red peppers: comforting vegetarian repast in a neat, self-contained package. The overall effect is a little bit like chicken pot pie — minus the chicken, but with the same slightly-smushy union of dough and sauce.

Alfajor from Javis Cooking (at Room 389).
  • Luke Tsai
  • Alfajor from Javi's Cooking (at Room 389).
The empanadas, which sell for $4 each at Room 389, are larger than the typical appetizer-sized empanadas you’ll see around town — served with a little tub of zesty homemade chimichurri sauce, a single pastry makes for a modest, but reasonably filling, lunch. Room 389 also often carries Sandes’ alfajores ($3 apiece).

Sandes said he’s in the process of expanding the wholesale business to include other cafes and bars, but for now the only ways to buy the empanadas are at Room 389 (a limited selection, usually two varieties each day) or pre-ordered by the dozen (with at least 48-hour advance notice) and picked up in person at The Kitchener (372 24th St.).

As for opening the Bay Area’s first brick-and-mortar parrilla restaurant, Sandes still says “that’s [his] dream, to have a barbecue place in Oakland.”

Javier Sandes grills up some chickens at a private outdoor event (via Facebook).
  • Javier Sandes grills up some chickens at a private outdoor event (via Facebook).
But finding a suitable restaurant space to do that kind of open-flame grilling has proven to be a lot more challenging than Sandes had anticipated, so he’s put those plans on hold and is looking instead for a place to open a full-fledged empanada shop.

In the meantime, he still does outdoor grilling on his parrilla for weddings and other private events — often, he’ll team up with tango musicians to provide a full-on Argentinian experience.

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