There are many details that even some 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. One enduring Latin American restaurant is Republica Empanada, which serves food from Central America, specifically Costa Rica, along with a few dishes originating in the interior of Mexico.
Republica Empanada is found in a low-key spot at the corner of Hibbert and First Avenue in Downtown Mesa. The space is a mid-century building next to the Mesa Urban Garden. The restaurant is roughly halfway between the light rail stations at Center / Main and Mesa Drive / Main. Mesa Drive is slightly closer, but the Center station offers the opportunity to stroll through the grounds of the Mesa Arts Center or to pedal along the First Avenue bike lanes. A bike rack is found outside the restaurant entrance with more situated at the nearby municipal courthouse.
The vintage building’s facade maintains its classic elements while its interior has been brought up to date with bright works by local artists. The seating is a long communal table, some smaller tables by the windows, and an open 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, customers 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.
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 slices of 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 if desired..The best way to sample them is to order a platter, which includes any two savory empanadas with rice, black beans, cabbage salad, and maduros.
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. The Greek, one of a few that borrows from traditions outside Latin America, replaces creamy mozzarella with tangy feta, along with spinach and kalamata olives.
Simpler empanadas are stuffed with cheese, either by itself, or in combination with black beans or meat. The cheeseburger empanada is exactly what it sounds like with a mix of ground beef and cheddar. Similarly, the ham and cheese empanada includes pork and mozzarella. For those whose tastes disfavor meat and dairy, the achiote potato empanada derives its distinctive flavor from annatto seeds, and the Pura Vida blends chickpeas with mushrooms and vegetables. Either can be ordered as part of a vegan platter with all the usual sides plus avocado.
Alternatives to empanadas include arroz con pollo, a Central American classic full of shredded chicken and vegetables within seasoned rice. Arroz Colombiano replaces poultry with a mixture of shrimp and sliced sausage amid the seasoned grains and diced vegetables. In any of these dishes, a few crisp bits of rice from the bottom of the pan are always a welcome presence in the bowl. A vegan rice dish is the arroz sin pollo. Another option is a torta, a sandwich of Mexican origin offered with a choice of pork, chicken, salmon, or a mix of black beans and plantains.
Seasonal specials include pozole offered in both red and white versions with a choice of chicken or pork during the cooler winter weather. 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 there is room for dessert, the sweet empanadas are a logical choice. Nutella, and peanut butter are among the fillings, and any can be upgraded with a scoop of ice cream.
Republic Empanada has a liquor license, allowing it to serve a limited selection of wines and a selection of mostly local bottled beers in addition to its own sangria and margaritas. Non-alcoholic choices include Mexican Coke and a variety of Latin American soft drinks in bottles or cans. As residential development continues in the surrounding blocks, Republica Empanada’s location may become more prominent as the restaurant enters its second decade.If so, Mesa’s Central American population and its food traditions may see even more recognition.
201 E. 1st Ave., Mesa AZ 85210