La Empanda Llama, 26B Picotte Dr., Albany, 915-1887, laempanadallama.com. Serving Tue-Sat 11-8. AE, D, MC, V.
Entrée price range: $7 (La Empanada Llama salad) to $13 (beef stir-fry)
Ambiance: muy informal
Consider the food that you hold in your hand. I mean the type that’s protected by an edible container: the sandwich of some kind, with a savory filling that doesn’t drip on you until you’re taking a bite out of it. There’s a built-in sense of restlessness; it’s food that declares you can’t be bothered with the formality of table and knife and fork.
Every culture loves those portable delights, and like love itself they run hot or cold, hard or soft, the savory aspect made the more compelling by a side-note of sweetness. Back in the days when this country knew its presidents by their initials, we did the same to our favorite sandwiches: BLT. PB&J. But we’ve always been in too much of a hurry to cook such items, and have left it to other cultures to give us the calzone and the knish, the pasty and pierogi.
And the empanda, that wholly contained marvel of pastry crust and meat-pie filling—or whatever you care to fill it with. Maria Lloyd has been serving empanadas and other Peruvian fare at local farmers’ markets for several years, and gained enough of a following that sought a more permanent location. She found it in a strip mall in Albany’s Buckingham Lake area, at the far end of Crestwood Plaza, amid a brickwork sea of apartment buildings.
Her restaurant originally was supposed to go into a smaller space at the same address, but a larger one, onetime home of Crestwood Catering and Deli, became available, with a kitchen already in place. There’s more seating than she’d originally envisioned, but I’m trusting that you’re going to help fill those seats.
Don’t look for fancy. It’s anything but. There are crafts on display at one end of the large dining area, the center of which is dominated by a large stuffed llama, furnishing half of the joke that lurks in the restaurant’s name.
Order at the counter. Grab a beverage – there are Peruvian drinks like chicha morada as well as more familiar sodas and juice. Take a seat. Your food will arrive as it’s finished.
If you’re there before 11 AM, you can get breakfast empanadas ($3 each), adding chorizo, bacon or ham with your eggs and cheese; going vegetarian with peppers and onions, egg and potatoes, or splurging (though they’re all priced the same) on the Supreme, which is the vegetarian empanada with your choice of meat.
Beef, corn, rice and raisins are a traditional combination; other empanadas include shredded chicken breast, cabbage and chorizo, ground beef and guacamole, spinach and cheese, refried beans and cheese alone. Again, $3 each.
Two or three empanadas and you’ve got a meal, and it’s a good one. There’s a magic to getting the pastry-to-filling ratio right, and Lloyd has long since solved that problem with the addition of a pastry that’s as rich and flaky as any crust you’ve ever adored.
There’s also a selection of tamales, a compote of mashed corn with or without meat, often with hard-boiled egg and olives as well, wrapped in a corn husk or, in the case of the pork tamale ($6), banana leaves.
The chicken tamale also is $6; a corn-and-cilantro tamale ($5), which I sampled, has a pleasing consistency and, with the addition of the homemade green salsa, a nice pump of heat. And you can get the same with refried beans ($5).
But Lloyd also offers what she terms Peruvian food with some American fusion. “I like to cook,” she explains. “I like to mix things.”
You can sample the range with La Empanada Llama Platter ($12), which includes fried yucca, plantains, an empanada and a small tamale. Other starters include the traditional salchipapas ($4), which mixes french fries and hot dog pieces, causa de pollo ($5), in which mashed potatoes are stuffed with chicken salad and avocado, and even something as simple as house-made tortilla chips with guacamole ($4), which I couldn’t resist.
A quinoa salad—now I’ve really got your attention—includes mango and avocado ($4/$6), black bean and mango salad includes cucumber and onion ($4/$6), and la Empanada Llama salad ($7) features cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, avocado and more mixed with lettuce.
The entrées, which is where the fusion really comes in, are served with rice and beans, fries, plantains or chickpeas with greens, along with a side salad; they’re available in smaller portions at lunchtime for $8 apiece, minus the side salad.
Chicken-based dishes include a cilantro-rich stew ($11), grilled chicken breast ($10), shredded chicken (aji de gallina, $12) with Peruvian yellow peppers, and the one I chose, chicken breast stuffed with quinoa ($12), which also includes mango and a little coconut, with a mango sauce sweetening the deal.
Lomo saltado ($13) is a beef stir fry with tomatoes and onions, served on top of fries; roast pork is $12, and a dinner of tallarin saltado ($12) gets you spaghetti stir-fried with tomatoes and onions.
Tallarines a la huancaina ($11) is spaghetti served with a Peruvian cheese sauce, and other meatless fare includes stuffed pepper with quinoa and spinach ($11), spicy tofu with vegetables ($12) and an $11 vegetable stew.
Trust me: After all that, you’ll want to try Maria’s celebrated tres leches cake ($3.25), which is a sponge cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk and heavy cream—and which, despite all that liquid, maintains an impressively firm presence.
The restaurant has been open for but three months, and begs to be discovered. You’re not going for the ambiance. You’re going to discover great food.