There a lot of things that even many locals don’t know about Mesa. One is that the city is home not only to a large population of Mexican heritage, but also to a significant presence of people with origins elsewhere in Latin America. That’s why Mesa has been home over the years to restaurants serving underappreciated cuisines such as Peruvian and Guatemalan. The newest addition is Republica Empanada, which serves the stuffed specialities of Central America, specifically Costa Rica, along with a few dishes originating in the interior of Mexico.
Republica Empanada has set up shop in a low-key spot in Downtown Mesa. The space is a mid-century building next to the Mesa Urban Garden. The location is between the light rail stations at Center / Main and Mesa Drive / Main. Mesa Drive is a slightly shorter walk, but the Center station offers the advantage of a pleasant stroll through the Mesa Arts Center (MAC). In fact, Republica Empanada’s location makes it a convenient choice before or after a show at MAC. The nearest bike racks are a block to the east at the municipal courthouse.
Inside, the space has been brought up to date with murals on the walls. The seating is a long communal table, some smaller tables by the windows, and a small lounge area near the host station. There’s also a back patio with several comfortable tables, plenty of shade, and a view of the garden next door. During weekday lunch service, order at the counter and then wait for food to be brought to the table. In the evening and on weekends, the restaurant switches to a full-service model. In either scenario, the atmosphere has proven casual, family-friendly, and welcoming.
Of course, a trip to a restaurant called Republic Empanada should involve some of those Central American treats, but before those arrive, the restaurant has a selection of shareable appetizers. Plantains, big green bananas, are a staple in Central American and Caribbean cooking. At Republica Empanada, they’re served in two varieties. The first is tostones, thick chips from unripened plantains treated as a vegetable; the second is maduros, sweet slabs of the ripened version of the same fruit. Both can be combined with some fried yucca in a sampler.
Those starchy starters are enjoyable but filling, as are the empanadas, which are understandably the star at a restaurant named for them. Republica Empanada makes its empanadas with wheat flour (as opposed to corn, which is also common). The turnovers are stuffed, crimped at the edges, and fried. They emerge from the oil without a greasy feel, allowing them to be eaten by hand without too much mess.The best way to sample the different styles is to order the lunch special, which allows mixing and matching from a list of featured styles.
Republic Empanada fills its empanadas with all sorts of ingredient combinations. Some are rooted in the Latin American traditions; others are more cross-cultural. To someone from Central America, the more familiar choices might be El Capitan, which has ground beef, potato, egg, olives, and raisins with a mild spice mix and the Boricua, which combines roasted, seasoned pork with rice and peas. Of course, there are simpler empanadas such as those stuffed with mozzarella cheese, either by itself, or in combination with black beans or ham.
Those empanadas which depart most from tradition are those with ingredients and flavor combinations from well beyond the Spanish-speaking world. The Hawaiian empanada is just like the pizza of the same name — full of ham and pineapple.The Greek replaces creamy mozzarella with tangy feta, along with spinach and kalamata olives. The Buffalo mixes gorgonzola cheese, poultry, a tomato-based sauce, resulting in a combination much like chicken wings but with far less mess. The achiote potato derives its distinctive flavor from annatto seeds.
Popular sides, included in the lunch combo and a la carte at other times, include white rice, black beans, and a cabbage salad that functions like a slaw. Larger rice dishes are the arroz con pollo, a Central American classic full of shredded chicken and vegetables within seasoned rice. The Gallo Pinto is a meatless alternative full of black beans, rice, and avocado. Beyond rice-based dishes, Republic Empanada has recently featured daily specials such as tamales in both Oaxacan and Costa Rican variations, as well as a big, hearty bowl of posole.
For a lighter meal, the two entree salads offer another option. The black bean salad combines abundant legumes with corn, cucumbers, and more in a summery mix. Another salad of hearts of palm and avocado has extra protein from boiled egg and chickpeas. If those salads allow more appetite for dessert, then the sweet empanadas are a logical choice. Nutella, fruit, and peanut butter are among the indulgent fillings, and an empanada a la mode is possible for an added charge. The rice pudding, studded with raisins and cloves, is another pleasing end to the meal.
Since opening, Republic Empanada has procured a liquor license, allowing it to serve a limited selection of wines and a selection of mostly local bottled beers. Non-alcoholic choices include Mexican Coke and a variety of Latin American soft drinks in bottles or cans. Future plans for the restaurant include a barbecue parilla for cooking outside in the garden. As the scent from the grill permeates Downtown Mesa, the secret of Republica Empanada and Mesa’s often underestimated Latin American diversity should become a little bit less of a secret.
201 E. 1st Ave., Mesa AZ 85210
Center / Main Station