The Empanada Project owners Andrew Owens and Benny Polanco say that the business, aside from being in part based on a dream and a product of necessity, also stems from wanting to give back to communities that they feel have been pivotal in their lives.
An idea that blossomed prior to the pandemic, The Empanada Project came to fruition in the early days of quarantine. The idea first came to them as they sat down for dinner one night to enjoy empanadas made by Polanco, and Owens remarked that they were delicious enough to possibly sell and that maybe someday in the future they could consider starting a business.
Their idea to sell empanadas would soon become a reality in order to help make ends meet during COVID-19. Owens and Polanco were fortunate enough to also enlist the help of their friend Olga Cruz, a chef with an expansive knowledge of Mexican cuisine and cooking techniques, and make Mad Tropical their home.
The owners brought with them over 40 years of combined experience in the restaurant industry and a strong belief in Indigenous and Black sovereignty. In the spirit of this belief and acknowledging that they are operating on stolen and occupied land, Owens and Polanco said, they came to the decision that the best way they could make an impact on their community was through food. So, the two agreed that 10 percent of gross sales and tips for the entire duration of the project would be donated directly to organizations helping people most at risk.
Owens remarked, “Benny and I are both queer and friends in the community directed us to GLITS (Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society), an organization led by Black trans people addressing the most pressing concerns faced by trans sex-workers in the NYC area. As the year went on, we expanded donations to include Black Lives Matter and direct donations to Afro-Caribbean people in Puerto Rico who were still recovering from Hurricane Maria and dealing with COVID at the same time.”
For the months of August and September, Owens, Polanco and Cruz chose to donate 10 percent of their proceeds to Hope for Haiti and the Sunrise Movement. They designated donations to Hope for Haiti, they said in a joint statement to Bushwick Daily, due to the various hardships that Haitians have and are currently experiencing and because the organization is “exceptionally transparent about how they use their donations.”
And they chose the Sunrise Movement, the two said, because combating climate change — the primary mission of the self-described youth movement — is very important to them, and the organization centers the guidance of Indigenous and Black leaders.
Owens and Polanco reflected on the organizations that they have chosen to support these past two months. “It is necessary that we enjoy our own lives, but never stop trying to build something better for everyone in the process.”
In order to keep it interesting and continue supporting various organizations, the empanada experts plan on changing up their menu approximately every two to three months. Choices for the menu are based on their desire to serve food that they love to cook and eat themselves. Additionally, inspiration for their dishes also derives from their cultural backgrounds.
Polanco, who is Afro-Puerto Rican and Dominican, and Owens, mostly Anglo-Scottish and from the Appalachian Mountains in southwest Virginia, take their culinary traditions from their heritage. Their mix of cultures translates to “Caribbean dishes with an occasional church-lady/comfort food/potluck twist.”
Polanco and Owens also mention that with Cruz on their team, they are incorporating more traditional Central and South American dishes as well. Owens remarked, “We want to recreate dishes that our moms and aunts made, while incorporating the things we’ve learned through experience and experimentation.”
Their most popular dishes include mofongo (mashed fried green and yellow plantains stuffed with different ingredients), artichoke-parmesan empanadas and guacamole with fresh roasted pineapple. Also on the menu are giant tostones that are served with Parmigiano-Reggiano and housemade mayo-ketchup.
Mainstay empanadas include pineapple pernil, orange chicken, Chilean beef and a vegan roasted-veggie empanada, as well as vegan mofongo. Debuting this fall, new dishes include sancocho, sopa de salchichon and a fancy corn pudding.
In addition to their current pop-up at Mad Tropical, Owens and Polanco have collaborated and partnered with local bars such as Happyfun Hideaway, Bossa Nova Civic Club, Project Parlor and 101 Wilson as well as other pop-ups including Soup Queen BK, Chata’s Tacos and Kinseyxkinsey.
Owens and Polanco say they hope to expand into a restaurant, bar and event venue that focuses on gay culture in a way that leans away from consumerism and towards something interesting, meaningful and inclusive.
The two add that gay and queer culture in the city can be ableist and “generally dismissive” of disabilities and neurodiversity, so they want to exhibit original artwork and music “to create a place for self-expression and community within that framework.”
As for what organizations their funds will be supporting next, Owens said, “Moving forward, we intend to shift our focus toward different organizations based on need and current events, and we encourage anyone reading this to send us suggestions regarding organizations that you feel deserve more attention for the work they’re doing.” In the next fundraising cycle, the Empanada Project is hoping to focus on Water Protectors in Minnesota fighting the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline.
The Empanada Project can be found in residency at Mad Tropical at 236 Troutman St. Food is served Wednesday through Saturday from 6 p.m. until approximately 11 p.m. and Sundays from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Editor’s Note: This article was corrected on September 16, 12:35 p.m. An inaccurate claim was removed regarding Owen’s employment. Owens actually retained part-time employment through the pandemic as an essential worker. Polanco was described as Afro-Puerto Rican but is also Dominican.
Top photo of Polanco and Owens serving up their empanadas at a pop-up event for a good cause. All images courtesy of The Empanada Project.
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