Mi Empanada is better than yours: How Argentinian-American food is taking Pittsburgh by storm
Specializing in Argentinian-style empanadas, Mi Empanada is a pop-up and catering business that's taking Pittsburgh by storm. Mi Empanada is run by Rachel Jenkins and Ivan Gil-Silva. Rachel is a Pittsburgh native, while Ivan was born and raised in Argentina and moved to the U.S. when he was 16.
In our recent social media giveaway, the Pittsburgh community voted Mi Empanada as the Best Empanada in the Burgh, sharing the the crown with The Colombian Spot.
We sat down with Rachel to chat about their signature empanadas, how food connects the Argentinian community in Pittsburgh, and their plans to take Mi Empanada from pop-up to storefront!
Can you introduce yourself and your business?
My name is Rachel Jenkins, I am the other half of Mi Empanada. We specialize in Argentinian empanadas. We do classic flavors, but we also like to bring a little local touch to it, bringing in flavors that Pittsburgh recognizes too.
How did you get started with Mi Empanada?
Ivan's mom has always made empanadas, so it's always been a part of his life. It started as a joke between friends; there would be parties, and we'd be like, "Let's lock Ivan away, and he can make us empanadas." We started making empanadas, and we saw such a great response that we decided to pursue it. It grew very organically.
What was it like taking the step from cooking for your friends & family to doing pop-ups and catering around town?
It was overwhelming. We both had other full-time jobs, and we don't have chef backgrounds. We didn't have proper training. Really familiarizing ourselves with the business was probably the biggest struggle. We've grown a little faster than we anticipated, so just really settling into that has been the biggest challenge, but also exciting.
There was also the R&D, when it came to the recipes. We still tweak them once in a while, but it took us about a year or so to really nail them down. It was great, too, because we've had fans since the beginning. They tried our empanadas when we first started, and then a year later, every single time, they've said it’s gotten better. We're trying!
What empanada flavors do you have on the menu now?
We have six different flavors: we do the Traditional Beef, which is native to Argentina. We do Chicken, Ham & Cheese, Spinach & White Sauce, Sweet Potato & Black Bean, and Humita. Humita is a traditional Native American dish from South America, which is pumpkin and corn. It's kind of like a tamale, but we tweaked it. It's so delicious, so savory.
Those are our six staples, but we have experimented with other flavors. We want to incorporate local flavors from Pittsburgh, because I'm a Pittsburgh native! We want to do a flavor of the month. We've done a breakfast empanada, with bacon, egg, and cheese. We've also tried a buffalo chicken, a pimento-cheese-chicken with Frank's Red Hot Sauce.
What has been the most rewarding part of running Mi Empanada?
The most rewarding part has been seeing the customer response! Seeing the positive reactions we get, seeing how delighted people are trying the food…
Sometimes it's people's first empanada: them not knowing what the food is, and then trying it and loving it—that's definitely been the greatest.
How does it feel knowing that you’ve been voted Best Empanada in Pittsburgh?
Pretty amazing! We don't have a storefront yet, so to be voted as a pop-up was really humbling.
How are Argentinian empanadas different from other types of empanadas across Latin America?
Each country has their own way of doing things. It depends on how they bake them. A lot of empanadas are fried, the ingredients they use differ. The Argentinian empanada is traditionally baked and is flakier, we use a flaky dough.
It was really interesting for me to see the businesses that were nominated. Argentinian, Colombian, Puerto Rican, the representation across the diaspora.
We definitely see it too. We have some customers who ask, "What kind of empanada is it?" There's always a friendly little rivalry when it comes to them. Like "Oh they're not Colombian?" "No, they're Argentinian."
What makes the empanadas at Mi Empanada unique?
I don't think anyone else could make what we make. The amount of effort that we put into it, all the studying we've done to hone in, and really focusing on the taste of the empanadas—that, first and foremost, we want it to be amazing. It's putting something together, and serving it. Each of these empanadas have gone through rigorous testing. If we don't love it, we scrap that idea and move forward.
I don't think we'll add fries to any of them, but maybe...
What does cooking and sharing Argentinian food with Pittsburgh mean to you and your cultural identity?
It's really amazing. There's just this whole community that has just really come out, that we did not realize was there. Ivan, being originally from Argentina, moved here when he was 16. He didn't really embrace himself in the Latin culture here. And me, being a Pittsburgh native, I didn't see it.
Serving Latin food has really brought forward a community that we didn't know was here. It's been amazing, the support you see. The only thing that I regret is that I don't speak Spanish. I'm the Pittsburgh half, for sure! Argentinian-American food.
What kind of responses have you gotten from the Argentinian community here, as well as the greater Pittsburgh community?
We joke, once we started making these empanadas, Argentinians just started coming out of the woodwork. I mean that in the best way. We didn't realize the presence that the Latin community has here. In other places, like Miami, you'll see that culture flourish; it's not so much in Pittsburgh. But the people here hear Argentinian empanadas and everyone comes out. They're happy to try and have Latin food in the Pittsburgh area.
Where do you draw inspiration for new dishes and menu items?
We pay attention to a lot of what people like and what we like. We find it very important to be inclusive as possible with our dishes. We offer two vegan options for empanadas. We have a vegetarian option. That's definitely something we keep in mind. Unfortunately, we don't have a gluten-free empanada yet, but it's something that we want to do, offering gluten-free products.
When it comes to inspiration, we go off of what we know. Sometimes we'll do food research. We look at a combination of foods, and we ask, "Can we make an empanada out of that? Can we do that?" We’ve done a Thai yellow curry empanada that was also vegan, borrowing a little from everywhere.
What are your top goals for Mi Empanada in the next year?
We are opening up a storefront! That's our biggest goal right now. We have been so busy with our pop-ups. We've secured a spot, it'll be opening up in Lawrenceville. Hopefully, within the next 6 months!
We pour our hearts into this. Ivan and I do not come from a trained background, we do this full-time now. We quit our jobs, and we're going at this full force. We're all in. We're very excited to see how this blossoms.
What made you realize it was time for a storefront?
It has always been our end goal. We started off bootstrapping this thing. We had an amazing product, and we did what we could within our budget to make it work.
Currently, we don't have a food truck, we operate out of a food tent. We're very mobile, we set up anywhere: we've been able to set up in a small coffee shop a couple times, really shrinking ourselves down. However, these pop-ups are not easy, they're very laborious.
We always knew that we wanted to have a store. I'll be very excited to be able to turn the key and come in. That being said, we want to keep doing the pop-ups and the amazing outreach. When we go out there, I love meeting new people who wouldn't necessarily walk by our store.
How do you know when it’s time to grow your business?
It's natural. We're taking it in strides. It's been a very natural demand for our growth, it's been word of mouth. When we're getting a little busy, we know it's time to pick it up: what new equipment can we get? How else do we make this easier? How many new people do we need to hire? You're catching us at the very beginning of our business, so I'm excited to have this conversation again in five years and see where we're at.
You can order empanadas and other tasty treats from Mi Empanada here. Follow Mi Empanada on Instagram to find out about their pop-ups around town and their new storefront in the works!
Love eating local in Pittsburgh? Check out our interviews with local favorites, Millie’s Ice Cream, who raised $50,000 on our platform, and Mediterra Cafe!