Argentine empanadas — freshly baked and ready to eat, or uncooked to prepare at home — are now available at your fingertips in West Oakland, courtesy of Javi’s Cooking. Javi’s (pronounced “ha-vi,” for Javier) opened in the former Locol Bakery space on Market Street in December, though owner Javier Sandes has been making empanadas for some time.

Empanadas are perfect handheld food. Each week, Sandes makes up to 5,000 of them — with the assistance of a few employees and a couple of machines that streamline the process — at the new bakery and storefront. The savory pie dough is made with just four ingredients: flour, butter, salt and water. Javi’s regular filling choices include a variety of meats, cheeses, vegetables and even a vegan option.

Sandes came to the U.S. in 2001 to play soccer through Patten University in Oakland. After an injury ended his fútbol dreams, he started cooking as a career. He grew up in a family of cooks, he said, and often helped his parents back home in Buenos Aires.

“Soccer was my passion,” Sandes said. “It’s hard to replace a passion, but I discovered cooking as a passion, coming from a big family, where we appreciate food. Food is in the center of everything.”

Javi’s Cooking empanadas come in 15 flavors.
Javi’s Cooking empanadas come in 15 flavors.

In 2009, Sandes co-founded and launched Primo’s Parrilla, a mobile food business that focused on Argentine grilled food. In 2012, he started Javi’s Cooking as a wholesale and catering business. He worked out of Oakland’s Kitchener commercial kitchen to make empanadas for cafés, bars and restaurants, and to sell at pop-ups, including a stint at Mad Oak Bar in downtown Oakland. In 2017, he partnered with Dirty Bird Lounge, a dive bar in Hayward, where Sandes ran the kitchen until last April. His time there ended when Javi’s Cooking got an eight-month contract with the Oakland Coliseum, where it served empanadas at A’s and Raiders games through December.

During the first few years of business, Sandes made all the empanadas by hand. He folded and pressed so many pies that the padding on his right thumb is noticeably larger than his left hand. “I guess I developed a muscle,” he said with a laugh.

In more recent years, Sandes began using machines in order to increase his production. Two in particular help this process: one that cuts the dough into perfectly circular shapes, and a pressing machine that also brands each empanada on the corner with small letters to show what the filling is. When made by hand, the folds closing the empanadas are made into different patterns to signify what’s inside.

The machine that presses the pies takes three people to operate: One to put the circular wrapper on the machine, one to scoop in a filling and one to catch the finished, folded pie and then lay each neatly onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. For those who find making food in an assembly-line style soothing and satisfying to watch, Javi’s empanada making process is just that.

Javi’s Cooking is Sandes’ first brick-and-mortar venture. He was looking for a space that was already built out. When his realtor told him about a potential place for his shop, he was surprised to find that it was the former Locol Bakery, the second location of the “healthy fast food” concept co-founded by Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson that had been shuttered for about six months. Although he now lives in San Francisco, Sandes used to live down the street when it was still in business.

“Locol built this place out from scratch,” Sandes said. “I used to get coffee here.”

He took over the lease of the 3,000-square-foot space. There, he makes empanadas for catering, wholesale and has a storefront, serving freshly baked empanadas to walk-up customers.

A Caprese empanada.

Javi’s serves 15 kinds of empanadas: 14 are savory and one is sweet. They cost $4.75 each, 15% off if you buy a dozen or more.

The classic Argentine fillings include carne (beef), pollo (chicken), jamon y queso (ham and cheese), humita (sweet corn), acelga (swiss chard), champiñones (mushrooms) and fugazzeta (Argentine pizza recipe with mozzarella, onions, and oregano). Other fillings are less traditional, including a Caprese one with delightfully gooey cheese, a vegan one using Impossible meat and one made with rabbit. Each day, Sandes offers about a dozen flavors available for purchase at the shop.

The main difference between Argentine empanadas and those from other parts of Latin America are the fillings, including the seasoning and the pastry dough, which is baked rather than fried. Most empanadas from Argentina are savory, while those from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean may include more sweet options.

Aside from the brick-and-mortar, which is open six days a week, Javi’s Cooking also brings out a trailer at First Fridays in Oakland and at various festivals during the summer in the Bay Area.

And more restaurants and bars in the East Bay are starting to serve his empanadas as well, including Somar Bar and Wooden Table Café in Oakland, Romeo’s Coffee in Berkeley, Café Duetto in Emeryville, Rumor’s Lounge In San Francisco, and Café Santana Roasting Company in Oakland.

Just a few weeks ago, Hasta Muerte Coffee in the Fruitvale neighborhood started selling Javi’s vegan empanadas. The filling is made with Impossible meat, mushrooms, onions and green olives, all wrapped in vegan dough. (Javi’s is not making a gluten-free option at the moment).

Circles of uncooked empanada dough. Javi’s Cooking plans to sell the pre-cut dough for home cooks to make their own empanadas.
Circles of uncooked empanada dough. Javi’s Cooking plans to sell the pre-cut dough for home cooks to make their own empanadas.

At the storefront, empanadas are sold individually, already baked, or by the dozen (make sure you order them in advance) uncooked, to bake at home. The uncooked ones last up to six months in the freezer, and can be baked with an egg wash for 18-20 minutes at 400ºF degrees.

One afternoon, I picked up five different baked empanadas to enjoy at home.

After a few minutes in the toaster oven to reheat, I devoured my first empanada filled with carne. The empanadas can be eaten as is, with a squeeze of lemon or with Javi’s housemade chimichurri sauce, which is available at the counter. (Javi’s also sells an 8-ounce jar of it for $9.75, should you want more). While chimichurri is not commonly used as a sauce for empanadas in Argentina, Sandes explained it’s become more common in the U.S.

“We decided to add chimichurri to our menu, which is a very traditional sauce that compliments beef, chicken, fish, pork, and vegetables very well,” Sandes said.

After finishing the carne empanada, I immediately regretted that I didn’t get two. The flavorful minced meat soaked up the zesty, herbaceous oil from the chimichurri sauce.

I also enjoyed the vegetarian empanadas I tried: sweet corn, mushroom and Caprese. The Caprese — filled with cherry tomatoes, basil and mozzarella — tasted fresh and light.

Javi’s Cooking will soon start selling packs of the pre-cut pastry dough. Sandes said he will also add pastries and sandwiches to the storefront menu. To drink, Javi’s serves locally roasted coffee from Hasta Muerte Coffee and Café Santana Roasting Company, and teas from Oakland-based Numi Organic Tea.

Javi’s Cooking is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday; it is closed on Sundays.

Guest contributor

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