Recently, Mrs. Gaucho and I had the good fortune to visit the production facilities of El Porteño Empanadas. Like most Argentines, founder Joseph Ahearne, was running a little late. We waited patiently and finally followed his car past a rickety security gate, towards a stripped down concrete building, and stopped in a remote parking lot, where we would later eat lunch among some tools and tumbleweed.
Ahearne’s kitchen facilities in San Francisco’s Hunters Point are rustic and humble—much like the origins of Argentina’s most famous comfort food—but this has no bearing on the absolutely delicious empanadas being created within its confines.
Founded in 2007 in San Francisco, El Porteño’s menu includes six savory options (the beef, chicken and mushroom options are the most popular), two sweet empanadita flavors, and three types of Argentine biscuit-cookies known as alfajores. They are currently sold at the San Francisco Ferry Building, Bay Area farmers markets, and are now available through local Whole Foods stores.
Ahearne gave us a tour of the kitchen, explained the origins of the company, and treated us to a delicious lunch (featuring items from their catering menu) of beef brochetas con chimichurri, ensalada mixta, maiz, and housemade alfajores for dessert.
Ahearne grew up in Napa as part of family deeply connected to the area’s food and restaurant scene. His mother, originally from Argentina, taught Ahearne the family recipe for empanadas. His sister, who has a culinary background including a stint as a pastry chef, helped perfect the empanada dough for El Porteño. The result is a fluffy, flaky crust that is similar to French pastry dough rather than the harder, drier crusts that one often finds with other empanadas. The company also uses local and seasonal ingredients in many of its empanadas including Prather Ranch organic dry-aged grass-fed beef; Fulton Valley all-natural chicken; organic Far West Fungi mushrooms; local chard; and housemade dulce de leche.
Perhaps the most interesting thing we learned from Ahearne during our visit was that prior to starting El Porteño, he worked as an operations manager for a tech company in Silicon Valley. That position actually taught him a great deal about an entrepreneurial food venture: learning about quality control, training production workers, and managing inventory. These skills are evident in the quality of El Porteño’s empanadas no matter where you buy them. Every empanada I’ve tasted—whether at the Eat Real Fest in Oakland, the Ferry Building, or a farmers market booth—has had the same taste, quality, and consistency. Not an easy feat when you consider that the pastries are baked on-site in a single facility by any of his 17 employees, and trucked to various sales locations.
There will be some changes coming to El Porteño in the near future. First, the company has redesigned their logo, which will now resemble a hand-drawn versionreminiscent of an old tattoo (pictured above). Ahearne worked with a local artist to refresh the brand while still maintaining the company’s classic look. Second, El Porteño is looking for new commercial kitchen space in San Francisco to expand its operations. Part of rationale behind expansion is to keep pace with the company’s expanding catering services and also to have an upgraded space to call its own. Third, as part of its expanded future space, El Porteño would like a small, retail cafe to feature its products as well as introduce related items from Argentine cuisine such as mate con leche, Argentine beers, and other sundries that would compliment its empanada menu.
While Ahearne has big aspirations for El Porteño, like most Argentines he isn’t in any hurry – and why would he be, when he’s practically dominating the Bay Area empanada market? With a quality product and rigorous operational standards, he seems confident that his business will grow steadily and organically, which will afford him time to enjoy the finer things in life, like watching Argentine fútbol, spending time with his two children, and of course the occasional asado.