A brother and sister of first-generation Colombian Americans are sharing their love of empanadas throughout the Triad.
Mike Ortegon, 34, and sister, Karen Ruiz, 40, grew up in New Jersey, the children of two Colombian natives.
MO’ Empanadas got started earlier this year, with Mike as chef and owner and Karen as business manager. It already has made repeat pop-ups at such places as Ziggy’s in High Point and Poppyseed Provisions in Winston-Salem. It also was one of the local vendors at the May 21 Paul McCartney concert at Truist Stadium in Winston-Salem.
MO’ Empanadas — which stands not only for “more empanadas” but also Mike Ortegon’s empanadas — is not a food truck, but a mobile-food business that does its prep at the commercial, inspected kitchen at Short Street Gastro Lab in Kernersville. It does the final cooking of its empanadas on-site.
After their mother, Libia Montoya, retired in the Triad, they moved down here. “We came down here to visit my mother, and we loved it,” Ortegon said. “It’s just so much more peaceful here.”
People are also reading…
Ortegon has kicked around in a lot of different industries, but he has always loved cooking. “I’m the business side,” Ruiz said. “Mike’s the chef in the family.”
From 2009 to 2011, Ortegon studied in the culinary program at the Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham. More recently, I have been working as a butcher at Food Lion.
Ortegon said he had tired of working for big corporations. “My sister was always saying I worked too hard. One day she sat me down and said, ‘You’re working too hard for something that’s not yours,’” Ortegon said.
He began to think of the empanadas he grew up eating, and how much he loved them. “My mom would make them. But you also can go to a Colombian bakery every morning in Jersey and get them,” he said.
“I started making them at home for friends. Then I would go back to Jersey to visit and try as many as I could.”
Now, Ortegon is devoting himself full time to his empanada business, with help from his sister and her husband, Brad Bodenhamers, both IT engineers.
MO’ Empanadas makes just three empanadas: chicken, beef and lentil.
“These are recipes passed down through generations,” Ruiz said, except for the lentils — that’s the only one we developed ourselves.”
The traditional chicken and beef empanadas have a cornmeal (masa) dough. The filling has slow-cooked meat mixed with potatoes and onions.
The lentil empanada is a vegan recipe. “I’m a carnivore, but my sister is more interested in health. I have to give her credit: She’s the one who said, “Why don’t you try one with lentils?”
The vegan empanada has not only lentils, but also carrots, potatoes and onions.
Empanadas are made all over South America but vary slightly from country to country.
Colombian empanadas are typically made with masarepa, or precooked ground corn flour — not wheat — and that’s how Ortegon makes them – so Mo’ Empanadas’ menu is gluten-free.
“The corn dough is nice and crispy,” he said.
The empanadas come with aji sauce. “It’s like a green sauce. It’s coriander-based,” Ortegon said. “I make mine spicier than my mom ever did, but it’s not what you would really call spicy.”
The only other item that MO’ Empanadas sells is sweet plantains, available with a sprinkle of cotija cheese (the only dairy ingredient that the business uses).
The empanadas sell for $5 a piece. A combo of two empanadas and plantains costs $13.
Ortegon makes all his empanadas in advance, then deep-fries on site. Because the filling is already cooked, he generally can fry the empanadas to order — they take only about 4 minutes. “Because they’re fully cooked, I’m just getting them hot and nice and crispy,” he said.
Ortegon wishes there were authentic Hispanic food businesses, but that foods like empanadas are labor-intensive. “There is a lot of Mexican here, but not much else,” he said. “But these empanadas are a two-day process. It takes eight hours minimum to cook the meat, six hours to cook the chicken and the lentils soak for 24 hours.
“It’s a process to make them, but it’s a labor that I enjoy because I’m bringing something different to people around here.”
Ortegon and Ruiz said that in the future they may look into selling the frozen empanadas in stores for people to cook at home. “Our goal is to get into distribution,” Ruiz said. “These freeze really well. And they work really well in an air fryer. This way, people could have them at home because not everyone can come to events.”
But for the moment, Ruiz and Ortegon are busy building the brand, getting the MO’ Empanadas name out there.
“We do want to distribute these at some point. “But I’m a kitchen guy. I like being in the kitchen cooking,” Ortegon said. “I want people to try them. I have a lot of faith that if people will just try the empanadas, they’ll love them.”
PHOTOS: MO’ Empanadas