Chef Dave Larsen of C4 Deli Stuffs Us with Empanada Know-How
If you've ever wondered what would prove a good vehicle to deliver deliciousness into your mouth, you've surely concluded that any kind of stuffed pastry makes that easily handheld. For your savory cravings, there is nothing like a convenient meat pie of any origin. In a behind-the-scenes experience we recently had with Chef Dave Larsen of C4 Deli in Santa Ana, their particular one was the Argentinian empanada, derived from the owner's family recipe and full of tasty goodness. Paired with housemade chimichurri and stuffed with plenty of filling, it hit the spot and we needed to see why.
If you're not familiar with C4 Deli: The Cure for the Common, think of a deli that was inspired by those of New York and add in a craft beer bar/shop along the perimeter. They pride themselves in making as much as possible in-house including their own breads for the community-loved sandwiches. Located in downtown Santa Ana, C4 Deli has been in the neighborhood for several years now and though they are well-known for their sandwiches and deli fare, they also put out (and run out often!) empanadas that originated from co-owner Jeff Jensen's (JJ) grandmother.
To get us started in learning the secrets of a quick-selling empanada, I got to dive hands-on into working with Chef Dave on making a fresh batch of the tasty pastries which happened to be the first thing he learned to make at C4 Deli himself. Hopefully the ones I contributed to still sold quickly that day! Dave had a food-oriented origin that seemed to take him through a variety of culinary skill sets from his start as a fishmonger in San Diego to a butcher in Whole Foods to working in hotel kitchens while homebrewing beer throughout his days. He helped open Haven Gastropub in Pasadena on the brewing side and eventually moved to brew at Cismontane Brewery before landing his chef spot at C4 Deli. There was no doubt that he loves the food and beverage scene.
What do you like most about cooking?We started with the dough, Dave's favorite part to make. Using JJ's grandmother's recipe of combining butter, eggs, flour, salt, and vinegar as a base, they've taken a little creative liberty at C4 Deli to tweak the dough make-up by replacing water with Avery's White Rascal, a Belgian-style white ale. Though I won't be sharing the exact ratios, let's just say that there was plenty of butter in the dough to make sure the empanadas would be perfectly flaky. Rolling out the dough seemed simple enough. Once the right width had been achieved, we ran the sheets through a pasta roller to get the right thickness, making sure to be conservative on how much flour we got on the actual dough lest it be hard to work with later.
"Being creative. Creating things people like. The people in this industry are very much my people - different in their own way but passionate."
The stuffing smelled so wondrous the moment Chef Dave brought it out. It had been prepared already for our visit as the cooking process can take some time. Their filling involved cooking onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, and garlic together until nearly a mush before incorporating ground beef. Leaving all of the natural fats in there, he next added in chopped hard-boiled eggs for the Argentinian flair. We had cut the sheets into rounds for the empanadas and scooped hefty mounds of filling onto each, making sure to top the meat with half a marinated olive for extra tang.
The next part to come definitely required some finesse that I was only just learning but would certainly require a lot of practice to get down - crimping the edges. To seal off the generous amounts of meat, we had to fold over the dough and clamp the edges down in a practical but beautiful way. I can only imagine how quickly JJ's grandmother got through this process with expert hands. My own were new to the method and managed to (hopefully) not mangle the empanadas I finished off. Chef Dave, on the other hand, was a smooth pro and sealed the half moons with style.
For that golden brown look, we brushed each pastry with egg wash and sprinkled with salt before sliding a whole tray into a 350°F oven for 13 minutes. Voila - done! Not only does C4 Deli make these bad boys in this manner but they also have a breakfast version that takes advantage of ham and Swiss, typical breakfast foods in a non-typical way. Chef Dave's also made sweet ones filled with fruit such as an apple cinnamon as well as miniature ones for catering that just use a bare tablespoon of stuffing. Sounds adorable and not surprising. Who wouldn't want to order a load of empanadas to share? Made several times a week, they're a popular offering by the restaurant and come with a chimichurri made of red wine vinaigrette, various herbs, garlic, and chili flakes.
One of the best parts about getting to see chefs in their element and being a pseudo sous-chef for a handful of hours is learning their stories. As we talked about homebrewing and urban farming, we got to see the kind of interest and passion Chef Dave has for doing things right. That's why when we knew that C4 Deli cures its own meats, we knew that it'd be done well. You should look out for the specials that the spot runs on a weekly basis because they are definitely having fun with what concoctions they can whip up, especially when their hot-out-of-the-oven-pastrami is ready! So if you have a hankering for empanadas, make sure to pop in and maybe you'll find yourself picking up another few things here and there from their deli side or their craft beer selection.
C4 Deli can be found at 200 N Broadway, Santa Ana, CA 92701.
Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.