Empanada World's recipes from the heart

The retail side of Empanada World opened in South Tampa, but its family-driven roots remain.

click to enlarge Gus Cruz designed his family's Empanada World headquarters as a cozy cafe. - Meaghan Habuda
Meaghan Habuda
Gus Cruz designed his family's Empanada World headquarters as a cozy cafe.

They aren’t based off recipes from food blogs, Pinterest boards or a viral Buzzfeed listicle. A staple at one family’s table for generations, they’re made by hand and baked, not fried — all 120-plus varieties.

They are empanadas, overseen by culinary Mozart Rosita Cruz, and they have stories, a history, at Empanada World.

Like the time Rosita’s grandfather developed his Mediterranean-style empanada with spinach and feta in the late 1800s, or when Rosita served her first beef rendition to her parents at age 14. Even Ryan, a returning 9-year-old customer who began visiting Empanada World’s beloved booth at the Saturday Morning Market when he was younger, has a story.

“We grew up with this,” says Lori Cruz, Rosita’s daughter. “The beef empanada is in our blood.”

The company, which opened the retail portion of its South Tampa headquarters to the public in mid-July, made its first test-run appearance at downtown St. Pete’s Saturday Morning Market in 2007. Digging the Cruz family’s idea, product and story, market managers offered them a booth, and they’ve been a regular fixture at the weekend hotspot ever since.

click to enlarge The Cruzes can tell each family member's empanada apart by how its sealed. - Meaghan Habuda
Meaghan Habuda
The Cruzes can tell each family member's empanada apart by how its sealed.

According to Lori, the market’s local and out-of-towner perusers have gone from not knowing how to pronounce empanada to saying things like “you were my first stop off the plane.” But those lucky enough to cross paths with Lori, her brother Gus and their siblings have been savoring Rosita’s gourmet tastes since the late ‘80s or so, around the time the kids started bringing empanadas to their corporate potlucks.

“Was empanada our first food?” Lori asks Rosita during an interview with CL.

“Probably,” she says.

After landing the market gig, Empanada World took off, expanding its selection of flavors for customers and delving into the event and catering world. And now, at 4123 Henderson Blvd., the Cruzes offer their five savory signatures — steak, onions and provolone; beef; crabmeat; chicken; and spinach and feta — as well as a revolving lineup of sweet empanadas, guava and cream cheese among them. If patrons don’t see an empanada that fits their dietary preference, no problem. Rosita likely has a recipe for that.

Her cooking, and experimentation, knows no bounds. From clam chowder and South America’s torta negra to curry chicken and Thanksgiving stuffing, the natural born chef, who became an empanada trailblazer of sorts while selling her baked offerings years ago in Ecuador, does it all. So much so that Lori refers to Rosita’s kitchen as “the lab.”

As cupcakes and other desserts round off the cafe’s sweet side, house specialties like gluten-free cheese bread and arepas de choclo (grilled corn cakes with mozzarella) are served, too. There are also soups, salads, cafe con leche and five deli sandwiches, including the popular Cuban and “BHST” with roast beef, ham, salami and turkey.

click to enlarge Ready to be pressed, Rosita's Cuban is a hit with Empanada World neighbors. - Meaghan Habuda
Meaghan Habuda
Ready to be pressed, Rosita's Cuban is a hit with Empanada World neighbors.

“She still fascinates me with the way she cooks,” Gus says. “We have so many ideas on what we want to make.”

Gus and Lori, who get help with the biz from their siblings and the family’s fifth generation made up of nieces and nephews, say they don’t have a plan for the next five years, but they’re open to extending the cafe’s current hours — 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday — if the demand is there.

Their customers are why Empanada World’s still here, after all.

They’re the gasoline that keeps the Cruzes going, and the reason it doesn’t matter if they “make it big” or not. They ask about Rosita if she’s not behind their booth at the market, and they bring her flowers when she is.

“We are the pioneers of this concept,” Lori says. “We want to let the world know the empanada is a gourmet taste.” 

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