Empanadas, the baked or fried pastry turnover typically filled with meat, corn, and/or cheese have many things going for them: affordable, convenient, portable, and tasty. A staple food of many Latin American countries, they are a certain signature at Aqui Es Santa Fe, the Colombian café that partner Carlos Santos runs, and whose mother Olga Santos opened in 2008.
Growing up the youngest of 10 children on a farm in San Juan de Rioseco, Olga’s family raised and slaughtered animals, grew vegetables and fruits, and did a lot of home cooking. She went on to own a café in Bogotá before coming to the US and opening Aqui Es Santa Fe.
“My mother built the foundation here,” says Carlos, who came aboard at the restaurant after leaving a career in finance he grew to dislike for its culture of greed, “but I wanted to build upon it and modernize by amping up the presentation, refreshing the decor, and being a bit more health-conscious with the cuisine.” [Carlos notes that traditional Colombian cuisine, while flavorful, can lean towards being heavy and greasy.]
Regarding the latter goal, the kitchen, led by Chef Gabriella Rodriguez, relies less on heavy oils like beef or pork fat to cook with and uses more fresh herbs to add flavor to dishes such as grilled skirt steak sautéed in tomatoes and onions, and pan-seared shrimp and roasted pepper skewers. Many items are homemade, including plantain chips, sweet cornbread, arepas from house-ground corn, plus the aji sauce condiment on each table comes via the juice of house-pickled cayenne peppers.
The interior refresh started with a near doubling in size from 550 to 1,100 sq. ft. by taking over an adjacent space, increasing the seating from 28 to 58 seats. Planks were suspended from the ceiling at intervals and laden with potted plants and vines. A bar was added, with a full menu of sangrias, including the signature sangria casera (organic brown sugarcane, fresh lime juice, Chablis, and Colombian aguardiente, or distilled anisette).
One of the most exciting changes may be the expanded selection of empanadas, which, aside from the traditional meat, cheese, chicken, and ham and pineapple varieties, there are now Insta-worthy “color wave” options, made using cuttlefish or squid ink, beet root extract, and spinach concentrate. The rainbow of colors on the exterior also hold new filling options like black shell blueberry goat cheese; guava and cheese, purple potato with ricotta and honey; and sweet potato and marshmallow cinnamon and brown sugar (a holiday special).
There’s even an Oreo-crusted dessert empanada made with arequipe, or Colombian dulce de leche.
“We wanted to update ourselves to a degree,” says Carlos, “but not to the point where we lost the core of who we are.”
Aqui Es Santa Fe
32 Broad St
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