Recently I have noted my friends on social media posting in hushed tones about the likelihood of “a light at the end of the tunnel,” as if speaking at a normal volume might jinx the future.
The tunnel, of course, represents the pandemic of this past year, and the light a time when we no longer need to fear the ravages caused by the coronavirus any more than we fear those of the “regular” flu.
So opening a restaurant a year ago as the pandemic began to rear its ugly face represented either galloping insanity or unbridled optimism. But there indeed may be light.
Which brings me to Alotta Empanadas. When Rashee Watuz opened her restaurant about a year ago, it was thought the pandemic might be over “by Easter.” But the pandemic is still with us — and fortunately, so is Watuz.
I can’t remember how I discovered Alotta, but the cuisine and proximity lured us to the location. We had already chosen our preferences from the online menu, so my personal driver ordered in-person. He described the venue as small with only two tables, a counter and raised whiteboards for the changing menus on a cheerful blood-orange wall.
Given the name of the venue, we certainly planned to order empanadas. But I wanted to try a full dinner as well. I love fried catfish (Mema’s Crispy Catfish, $15, was also offered with shrimp for a reasonable $3 upcharge). But rather than gild the lily (or the catfish), I chose the unadorned version and was delighted with the result.
Crispy bordering on crunchy, the two-and-a-half pieces of fish appeared to be dredged in coarse cornmeal. I requested dirty rice ($4 if ordered as a side) with it, a flavorful mixture of turkey sausage, onions peppers, scallions and black-eyed peas.
Accompanying the meal were small containers of tartar sauce and slightly spicy red sauce, and a large plastic cup of not-too-sweet punch loaded with fresh fruit.
My driver opted to sample the restaurant’s namesake by ordering three empanadas with the understanding that I might share at least a bite of each: Veggie Lovers ($4.25, filled with carrots, broccoli, squash, onions and peppers); Buffalo Chicken ($4, chicken breast, buffalo sauce, scallions and cheese); and Beef with Olives ($3.50, beef, onions, peppers, olives, red sauce and cheese). All three brimmed with flavor.
I should note that the crust of the empanadas was golden brown, incredibly flaky and inclined to melt in one’s mouth — a crust versatile enough to enfold a sweet or savory filling and pretty enough, with its gently scalloped or fork-crimped edges, to serve on a plate without any other adornment. His side order, beans with sauce, escaped my appreciation until I enjoyed the leftover contents of the small container cold the next morning for breakfast. These beans were assuredly not out of a can!
Watuz’s desserts are also empanadas. They come in five varieties — Peach Cobbler, Apple Pie or Sweet Potato ($3), or Cheesecake or Strawberry Shortcake ($3.50). I ordered the cheesecake, but none was available that day. But the apple and peach empanadas that accompanied us home were both crispy and filled with fruit that was neither sweet nor sour. Dusted with confectioners’ sugar and a hint of cinnamon, the little fried dough crescents were happily shared between us.
This little gem of a restaurant offers over 50 varieties of empanadas with daily specials, including Soul Food on Sundays. Alotta also offers intriguing items with names such as “ShaQ” ($5, with catfish, onions, peppers, scallions, jerk sauce and cheese); “The Daddy Burger” ($10, homemade turkey burger on a grilled bun with fixins); and “Lockdown Rice” ($3.75, octopus, calamari, onions, black-eyed peas, peppers and mushrooms).
Designated as an “upscale fast-food restaurant,” owner Watuz makes all the fillings from scratch using fresh ingredients.
I’m returning to Alotta Empanadas this weekend with friends — the highest compliment I can pay a restaurant.
Although Spain claims it, many cultures** prepare foods similar to the empanada (from the Spanish verb empanar, meaning to coat or wrap in bread). Imagine a circle of dough ranging from a few to 12 inches, stuffed with almost any imaginable kind of filling, formed into a half-moon, edges secured and fried, baked or boiled. Voila! You might get an empanada or a dumpling, a pierogyi or a ravioli.
(**Mexico, Argentina, Portugal, the Caribbean, the Philipines, as well as the Indian samosa)
WHERE: 1309 Altamont Ave. (behind the gas pumps), Rotterdam, 12303; 518-982-1010
WHEN: Tuesday-Saturday 2-9 p.m., Sunday 1-6 p.m., closed Monday
HOW MUCH: $39.69 without tax or tip
MORE INFO: Parking area, handicapped accessible, credit cards accepted, takeout, delivery, online ordering, outdoor dining weather permitting, kids’ meals.
More from The Daily Gazette: