Durham, N.C. — Sarah’s Empanadas is one of those lunch locations the RTP crowd keeps close to their vests. I’ve spied it many times when heading to dinner at Papa Mojo’s or Thai Lanna, but it’s only open at midday, so getting there during operating hours was a challenge—a challenge now conquered!
The Company: A pair of women whom I meet up with every month to try a new-to-us lunch location, which was quite convenient for this purpose.
The Location: A nondescript strip mall exterior hides a cozy restaurant. Inside, Sarah’s Empanadas is adorned with tropical bird decorations, creamy mint walls, and a giant, colorful mural. It’s also likely to be packed with diners and a long line of patrons paying at the register. Never fear, the cashier is speedy and has amazing credit-card-sliding reflexes.
The Food: As their name implies, empanadas are the primary draw. They are made in the Bolivian manner, big hand pies with of a choice of several fillings including a couple vegetarian options. The pastry was crisp at the edges and similar to a crescent roll toward the middle. The spinach and cheese filling reminded me of a spanakopita with vibrant flavor. The chicken with cheddar and jack was quite satisfying, especially with the oregano. One friend preferred the ground beef and cheese to the spinach, enjoying how the seasonings made it resemble a calzone. Make sure to use a healthy portion of the mildly spicy and sweet tomato salsa on the table. It’s one of the best I’ve had.
Our side dishes were more conventional. They included a crisp, green salad and flavorless Spanish rice with a layer of refried beans down the middle. The broccoli soup of the day stood out among those options. It consisted of broccoli crowns, lima beans, corn, onions, and bell pepper chunks in a pureed broth.
The Service: Sarah’s Empanadas turns tables fast! Our server was ready for our order within minutes of taking a seat, and she indulged us for our indecisiveness. She also had an excellent explanation of the Inca Kola offered on the menu, calling the taste a mixture of bubble gum and Haribo gold-bears. One sip, and I was impressed by her spot-on description. Guaraná Antartica is another imported soda option. Food also comes out fast, though not always together. One of Sarah’s secrets is that the empanadas are made weekly and frozen so they can be heated up in a jiffy for the lunch demand. Their quality does not suffer from that method at all.
The Bill: Two empanadas, a side, a can of soda, and a tip came to $12.18.
The Verdict: The sides need livening up, but bypass them and let the empanadas be the stars they are. Skipping sides may have the added benefit of leaving room for a dessert empanada—none of us could manage that this time. Sarah’s Empanadas will give you a full, happy stomach without setting back your wallet or your watch.
Rebecca Gomez Farrell is a Durham-based fantasy, horror and romance author and a freelance editor. She reviews the Triangle’s restaurants and cocktails on her blog, The Gourmez, contributes to the food blog Carpe Durham and writes television commentary for All My Writers.