Merlos – Salvadorean Empanadas
The Los Angeles adventure of discovering fried dough continued after sampling both a baked Argentine version and a Colombian empanada with a fried corn exterior. We arrived at Merlos and like our previous visits to other small, ethnic restaurants in the neighborhood, was surprised at the lack of customers considering it was a Friday night. During our brief visit, we did witness several customers come in a pick-up large to-go orders so I assume — and hope — the restaurant thrives on its local community for take-out.
Along with a savory, beef-stuffed empanada, we spied on the menu an empanada con leche a seemingly sweet version which we found worthy of the experiment. While the Colombian empanada was encased in the crispy, corn-based masa here the offering from El Salvador is a wheat-based pocket of fried goodness with the hearty filling meatier and more robust. Along with beef, we could detect carrots, potatoes, onions and was advised that additional seasonings include bell pepper and achiote. The exterior crust was delightfully crispy with no hint of greasiness. Served alongside was a light slaw intensely reminiscent of Japanese tsukemono; finely chopped cabbage simply dressed with slightly sweetened white vinegar. It is hard to not compare the Colombian empanada with the Salvadorean one. While the Colombian empanada’s filling was finely puréed and more subtle in its seasonings, the empanada from El Salvador had more coarsely chopped filling ingredients which made the flavors more defined and interesting.
The sweet empanada con leche — which technically could be defined as a stuffed bread or pastry — proved to be a bit of a misnomer as a fried dough, although we didn’t know it until it arrived. Not an actual dough, this was a hollowed-out plantain which had been filled with a vanilla pudding and fried. The moisture from the banana made this fried offering not as crunchy as one might like, but both my friend and I were pleasantly surprised at the simplicity of the ingredients being not too overtly sweet and quite engaging. It would have been very easy to make this teeth-achingly sweet but the simple vanilla pudding did not overpower the sweetness of the banana. Nor did the richness of the banana overwhelm the sugars in the pudding. The combination reminded me of a classic banana cream pie without the crust or meringue.
2401 Marine Ave
Gardena, CA 90247
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