Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico - Anyone who has taken the pleasant ride south from Vallarta to the mountainous valley of El Tuito knows the famous panaderia about 15 minutes before you get to town. In the small pueblo of Columpio, sits the open-air wooden building known as Panaderia los Pinitos.
Every time I venture south, I stop here to talk with whoever is running the bakery that day. And of course to sample some empanadas! Owned by seven families, mostly The Martinez and The Torres, each family takes one day to bake and run the store.
They have been in this same location for eight years and are the delicious stop for locals and travelers alike. The cross-section of people I have witnessed includes old trucks loaded with laborers, long haul drivers who have to park along the highway, police vehicles, families, couples, motorcyclists, farmers on tractors, and even a high school group of bicyclists from Las Juntas near Vallarta! A long, hilly ride just for some empanadas.
And empanadas, sweet or savory, are what the panaderia is known for although they also make sweet breads and pizzas. They bake about 1000 empanadas a day, seven days a week. And the amazing thing is they are all done in a wood-fired clay oven!
Panaderia los Pinitos makes many flavors of sweet empanadas, clearly the most popular.
So what is an empanada anyway? It is dough wrapped around a filling and either baked or fried. They can be found all over the world with various shapes and names but are thought to have first appeared in the 7th century in northern Spain during the Moorish invasions. The seaside town of Galicia, known for its annual empanada festival, is famous for its seafood empanadas where its preparation was originally regulated by the ruling class.
It was, and still is, ideal for travelers since it is covered and baked and eaten with the hands. The name comes from empanar, or to coat with bread. Variations of this form of portable meal are found in Cornish pasties, Italian calzone, or turnovers. Most cultures have some sort of traditional "pocket" or meat pie food.
The Spanish conquistadors brought the empanada to Mexico in the 1500s when the Aztecs and Mayans substituted corn masa for the European wheat flour. Today, each region of Mexico has its version of the empanada. In Caribbean countries, yuca or plantain can serve as the starch.
Homemade empanada dough requires only a handful of ingredients: flour, salt, egg, cold water, and butter, and it comes together in under ten minutes. Sweet fillings can be all types of tropical fruits, jams, even chocolate or cream cheese. Savory fillings are mixtures of meats, cheese, vegetables, or seafood. Most shapes we are used to are some variation of the half-circle crimped by fork or fingers then baked or fried. My friends at the Panaderia los Pinitos use wheat flour, shaped into rectangles, filled, and baked in the wood-fired oven.
On your next trip south of Vallarta, stop at the panaderia and buy a bag. They are only 8 pesos each. You won't be disappointed.
More information on Latin American empanadas can be found at remezcla.com.
Sandra Cesca has lived in Puerto Vallarta for 12 years. She is a cultural tour guide with her own small business: Puerto Vallarta Walking Tours. She is also a cultural photographer and writer whose work can be found on Your Cultural Insider and Sandra Cesca Photography. Contact her: sandra.learn.vallarta(at)gmail.com.
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