Ruben Frias grew up in Monterey, Mexico, (about 100 miles south of Laredo) in the heart of "meat country." He remembers long weekends when his uncle would braise meats for a crowd. As a child, Frias was schooled in how to pair different cuts with complementary chilies, developing a passion for food.
As an adult, he chose a more practical path, eventually becoming a creative director for Disney. When Frias moved his family to the South Bay in 1995, cooking was still just a hobby. He now owns The Empanada Shop in Redondo Beach.
Frias' passion for Mexican cooking turned into a quest to create the perfect empanada. Oddly, though, the empanada is not really Mexican. Its origins are Spanish and it is more common to South and Central America. But Frias' grandmother often made pumpkin ones, and he perceived it as the sort of grab and go food people are looking for right now. After all, what is an empanada but a tastier, fresher, hot pocket?
Frias started baking and selling his empanadas at the Malibu farmers market where the product regularly sold out. He expanded to a couple more outdoor markets and food festivals. The reaction was encouraging. With the support of his family, and a little seed money raised through friends, he decided to go "all in;" but given his corporate background, he knew better than to just wing it. He came up with a business model, locked in a couple distributors, and rented kitchen space in a downtown location permitted for USDA organic certification, producing for retail specialty stores.
Four months ago, Frias opened The Empanada Shop on Artesia in Redondo Beach, to better connect with consumers. Here he can try out new ideas and get immediate feedback from customers. He's been counting on foot traffic and word of mouth/social media—but local businesses have already discovered the place and mornings are filled with folks picking up boxes of empanadas for the office.
Between the storefront and various distributors, The Empanada Shop is currently putting out about 2,000 units a day with plans to ramp up to about 5,000. Frias recently struck a deal with Sam's Club to bring his empanadas to four of their stores including Torrance and Long Beach. And, he's meeting with Whole Foods as well as Amazon.
All of this business savvy would be useless if the product wasn't delicious. So I'm pleased to report the empanadas served out of the Artesia shop are pretty great.
In keeping with his 'healthier' model, Frias eschews the use of lard in the exterior pastry; instead, it is made of flour, water and just enough butter to keep the dough light and flaky.
There are several fillings to choose from, all of them slow-simmered to achieve depth of flavor. The chicken is the most popular, tender cubes of chicken and corn stewed with smoky, but not hot, ancho chiles. I was told the local surfers go for the carne asada, which has a real kick of heat from guajillo chilies, and there's even a huevos ranchero empanada for breakfast.
Vegetarian options include spinach spiced with paprika and cayenne, sweet potato with roasted corn, and of course, the humble bean and cheese.
On the side, a tangy dipping sauce of cilantro, garlic and lime adds some acidic brightness.
I was hoping for a carnitas version, but Frias is committed to organic and has struggled to find a consistent USDA guaranteed grass-fed pork supplier. He'd like to create a shrimp filling, but regulated organic is also tough to find.
Because of the quality of ingredients, the price point is a little higher than some other empanadas, $3.95 for one, discounted when bought in multiples, but the freshness and quality is obvious.
Recently the menu has expanded to include guacamole and chips, and on weekends some Mexican-inspired salads. And there are sweet versions for dessert, including apple pie and Mexican chocolate empanadas.
Because he loves the idea of young entrepreneurship, Frias has hired some local high school students for the summer, and has had great luck with them. Hopefully they will learn from his experience how to use business savvy to grow their own passion.
The Empanada Shop is located at 1908, 1/2 Artesia Blvd, Redondo Beach. The shop is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (or until they sell out) daily.