By Noah Austin | Photograph by Paul Markow
There’s not really a convenient time to interview Lara “Lola” Negron-Abreu about Lola Empanada, her restaurant in San Tan Valley, southeast of Phoenix. Even at 2 p.m. on a sweltering Wednesday in September, she keeps getting interrupted to take orders and prepare some of the restaurant’s titular dish.
Empanadas, it seems, don’t adhere to mealtimes. From the first bite, it’s easy to see why: A crispy, flaky crust gives way to an ever-changing array of savory fillings. On this Wednesday, the menu includes one with bacon, chicken and jalapeños in a cream cheese base. It’s both immensely satisfying and gone from the table far too soon.
The empanada is the Spanish and Latin American equivalent of a calzone. The size and filling vary, but Negron-Abreu’s version is large enough to be eaten as a meal. And it’s different from the empanadas you’re likely to find at a Mexican restaurant. “It’s New York style and Latin-Caribbean fusion,” the Big Apple native says. “I’m Puerto Rican, and my husband is from the Dominican Republic. We lived in Miami for a while, too. We just kind of created our own genre. And we realized this style of food just didn’t exist out here.”
Between stints on active duty in the military, Negron-Abreu tested the market by preparing empanadas and selling them on Facebook. Satisfied with the response, she opened Lola Empanada in April 2017. She’s retired from the military now, and many of her Facebook guinea pigs have become regular customers. And it didn’t take long for the world to notice: In late 2017, Yelp named Lola Empanada the best-reviewed Arizona restaurant to open that year, and a resulting Buzzfeed story produced an overwhelming response. “I couldn’t believe it,” Negron-Abreu says. “There was one Saturday when I had to close at 7, instead of 8, because we ran out of food. It was a little traumatizing, but it was wonderful. It was exciting, and we learned a lot.”
Yelp reviewers and others rave about the green chile chicken empanada, which remains the most popular. Others are filled with beef, chorizo sausage or even crab meat. For vegetarians, there’s one with spinach and ricotta cheese. And dessert options include empanadas made with pineapple or Nutella.
Above all, Lola Empanada is a family business that includes Negron-Abreu’s husband, her parents and even her kids. “We spend more time here than we do at our house,” she says. “We just try to make it a really comfortable place for everybody — to give people good, simple food that maybe they haven’t tried before.”
Just don’t expect her to have much time to talk.
Lola Empanada is located at 5452 E. Skyline Drive in San Tan Valley. For more information, call 480-987-0203 or visit www.facebook.com/lola.empanada.77.