Sometimes you encounter a version of a dish that helps you understand it in a completely new way. I have not had the pleasure of visiting South America, but I felt I had a decent handle on empanadas. Then I discovered Cafe Nena’i in East Austin.
For anyone who has eaten good-if-not-great versions of the filled South American pastry, the bright little cafe’s roster of four empanadas might at first seem redundant. If I order the beef, do I really need to try the chicken? And the spinach? And the ham and cheese? All in one visit? Here, the answers are yes, yes, yes and yes.
Elena Sanguinetti says her mother never allowed her to help much in the kitchen when she was growing up in Paraguay. She must have had a good eye from a distance, though, because she does excellent work re-creating the savory and sweet recipes passed down from her mother. I imagine a just-for-fun stint as a teenager in baking school probably didn’t hurt, either.
The beef and chicken empanadas both shine with a sunny, egg-washed glow. The shredded beef ($3.95) flaunts its juiciness in the face of the dried ground product you often find in lesser empanadas, and the tucked and pinched edges add texture to the bite that carries a briny haze of olive. The chicken version ($3.75) looks more like a dinner roll and has fewer dark toasted spots than the half-moon-shaped beef pie. A piercing of the puffed exterior deflates soft pastry that collapses around tender chicken and egg whites piqued by freckles of peppers. Both the full moon and half-moon pastries are supple and doughy enough to flake while not deteriorating into a dried, crumbly mess, and both come with a tiny cup of electric chimichurri.
Spinach and melted mozzarella cheese ($3.75) that entangles sweet raisins in its gooey stretch hide behind the thin, crunchy layer of one of the two fried empanadas served at Nena’i; the other version ($3.75) will make you want to never again eat a ham-and-cheese sandwich not served in fried shell.
In terms of actual sandwiches, there are the beef Milanesa, pounded and fried steak draped with a veil of ham and cheese and a splash of mustard that nods to a Cuban sandwich ($7.25); and a little toasty triangular ham-and-cheese melt on white bread ($3.95) that looks and tastes like something your mom might make for you on the griddle following a summer afternoon frolicking in the front-yard sprinkler.
Sanguinetti opened the counter-service cafe, one of Austin’s few South American restaurants, with her Miami-born daughter, Gladys Benitez, in February, and Sanguinetti apparently not only adopted her mother’s cooking style but also her management skills. Benitez stays out of the kitchen while running the business and marketing sides of the operation, but she does have a say in some of the dishes her mother creates fresh daily.
The University of Texas graduate loves the multiculturalism of her former home, Miami, and you can see the Cuban influences in a menu of aggressive coffee drinks like the sweet cafecito (espresso with sugar) and the colada, a cafecito on steroids. Sanguinetti adapts to her daughter’s love for Venezuelan food with a pliant arepa ($3.75) filled with scrambled eggs, ham and cheese that will have you rethinking breakfast sandwiches served on anything besides the corn-based rounds. Corn also shines in a traditional chipa guazu ($2.95), a cheesy Paraguayan corn souffle that would make a great side dish at one of Austin’s myriad barbecue spots.
The chipa guazu bridges the sweet and savory sides of Sanguinetti’s Paraguayan menu. You can skip breakfast and lunch and just head in for a sweet afternoon (or morning) treat, like a crumbly alfajor cookie pasted with shards of coconut and squeezing an ooze of dulce de leche ($3.75) or a tiny shellacked medialuna croissant ($1.95) filled with Nutella. A thick wedge of torta de miel ($1.95) is somehow both dense and airy, its initial acrid burn slowly transforming into the crystalline sweetness you’d find in the crunchy bits that ring the top of a sugar cane honey bottle. And those with a taste for the tart, sticky jam of guava can find it in a flaky cross-hatched pasta frola tart ($2.95), balanced with creamy cheese inside a glazed and folded pastry called a factura ($2.95), and caught in a freeze-frame flow from a bollo roll dusted with sugar ($2.95).
It was Benitez’s dream in opening the cafe to give her mother her first professional platform to share her cooking with the world. They named it Cafe Nena’i, which means “little girl” in the indigenous Paraguayan language of Guaraní, after Sanguinetti’s childhood nickname. But it was I who had the childlike sense of discovery, along with a calming sense of welcome, on each visit to the family-run cafe.