Editors' pick

Panas Gourmet

South American
$$$$ ($14 and under)
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Editorial Review

Catherine Barker wrote about Panas Gourmet for a July 2010 Good to Go column.

Argentina might not have won the World Cup this year, but with the recent addition of Panas Gourmet in Dupont Circle, the country's beloved empanadas are winning points here, one delectable stuffed pastry at a time.

You might have seen the name Panas at Balducci's, Calvert Woodley and Rodman's. Owner Federico Garcia-Lopez has been selling his empanadas, made in a commercial kitchen in Rockville, to those stores since 2007, when he decided to venture into the culinary world after 10 years in management consulting. Finding success selling his product wholesale and occasionally catering, Garcia-Lopez started looking for a space to set up shop. Location-wise, he scored. His new 13-seat eatery, which opened June 25, sits underneath the original Pizzeria Paradiso on a busy stretch of P Street NW.

These are not your Argentine grandmother's empanadas. Yes, they are the traditional small size (just 2.5 ounces each), and some recipes do come from his family. But for the most part, Garcia-Lopez is thinking globally. The Cubanovo, for example, holds rich rillettes of pork, plus onion, cilantro and lime. Samba shrimp is a coconutty nod to Brazil, while the vegetarian tamal, with its soft, corn-pudding-like filling, calls Mexico to mind.

Purists will appreciate the carne, which contains tender beef, bits of hard-cooked egg and green olive. All can be ordered individually ($2.25), as part of several combos that include sodas and sides ($8 to $12.50), or by the dozen ($22.80 to $21.60, depending on how many dozen).

Also unconventional are the "dripping sauces," meant to complement these flaky, baked-not-fried turnovers. We liked the oregano-laced chimi best; salsa verde, while pleasantly herbaceous, could use a little more jalape kick. Choose one sauce per empanada. Extra sauce costs 50 cents.

In addition to empanadas, Panas (a play on the word empanada and also a word for "buddy" or "friend" in some Latin American countries) offers a handful of house-made side salads (all $4.50). We liked the robust bianca for its crunch of raw onion and radish and its tang of crumbled feta. The quinoa packs a nutritious wallop with spinach and dried cranberries.

Guacamole ($1.75 for a modest portion) makes a satisfying dip for plantain chips ($1), which Garcia-Lopez buys from a distributor.

Could that be grass growing out of the wall? "It's not real," laughs Garcia-Lopez, who chose the design element to highlight the restaurant's ecologically minded attitude. Serving and cleaning products used on the premises are environmentally friendly; 90 percent of what's in the space today was recycled from the previous tenant, he says.

For a sweet finish, try the tiny, two-bite dulce de leche empanada ($1.50). Oozing with dark, rich caramel, it certainly tastes like victory to us.

(July 21, 2010)