If you’ve had El Porteño’s food – you’d remember. Whether it’s the melt in your mouth savoriness of their superstar empanadas or the decently sweet alfajores, guests have been lining up around the SF Ferry Building for years to dig into Joseph Ahearne’s traditionally modern take on this famous Argentinian fare. Now you don’t have to choose between catching your ferry and digging into your favorites as El Porteño arrives to Napa next month!
For Joseph, it was a foregone conclusion he’d get into food. He was born into it, growing up in his mom’s St. Helena restaurant. There was no escaping it. Argentina is abundant in beautiful food traditions, of all things the choices, how did a young man from Napa Valley decide to put his life’s work into empanadas?
“My mom being from Buenos Aires, I grew up with them, they were part of our lives. It wasn’t until after my wife, Teresa, and I returned from a trip to Buenos Aires that we realized they were not represented in the bay area at all (in 2008 anyway). That and a desperate longing for Buenos Aires made Teresa and I, with two toddlers in tow, decide that giving up our financial security during a recession while so many other restaurants were closing around us, was a good idea.”
Starting a business in a recession environment surprisingly turned out to be a good thing. It opened the doors to a lot of innovation in the food industry. It gave rise to the street food movement that allowed micro-businesses to vend almost anywhere. The Burlingame Farmer’s Market was where El Porteño first debuted, giving the Bay Area a taste of what Ahearne had in store.
“Simple and sophisticated at the same time.” is the best way Joseph describes his offerings. The empanadas are a flaky handheld pastry pie filled with savory and sweet fillings. They only partner with high-quality local producers (grass-fed certified humane beef from Keller’s Crafted Meats, Mushrooms from Far West Fungi, and local farms for the vegetables), which they believe sets their empanadas apart. Alfajores, a decadent crumbly cookie filled with house-made fruit pastes and dulce de leche, create the perfect (after your savory ‘pie’) dessert.
Joseph and Teresa search out different fillings while in Buenos Aires that are deliciously memorable and recreate them in their kitchen while building on old family recipes. It’s as if flavor knows where to find them. On their last trip to Buenos Aires, they met a butcher in the Mercado Progresso, (a really old market in BA), where he kindly shared some of his secrets for the perfect empanada filling. Those innovations are paired with a special dough recipe developed by Joseph’s sister, who trained as a pastry chef in Biarritz and at La Varenn in France.
Are you ready to order yet?
In addition to their traditional empanadas, they plan on introducing some new flavors through the new year. As well as alfajores, a traditional shortbread sandwich cookie with various fillings such as dulce de leche, mebrillo (quince paste), a Yerba Mate bar, and salads.
When wondering what the perfect El Porteno order would be, there is no better answer than from the creator:
• For traditionality, you have to try the Carne, we use Keller Crafted meats that do a great job of matching Argentine beef. It’s a simple and very traditional filling. It has a balance of spice from the cayenne pepper coupled with the sweetness of the raisins and cinnamon that can’t be beaten.
• The Jamon y Queso is more than the name suggests, using prosciutto and Fontina cheese really highlights the European influence in Argentine food.
• The Fugazzeta is a must. We don’t do pizza but felt we owed it to the US to try to bring this mouth-watering Argentine pizza here. Thinly sliced white onions drowned in melted aged white cheddar with a dash of oregano does a worthy representation.
• For your sweet tooth, there’s the banana y dulce de leche, banana with dulce de leche, what more needs to be said.
We didn’t get far when asked to share secret ingredients or a family recipe. But Joseph indulged us with his favorite drink recipe with a few caveats.
“My favorite recipe is a simple one, 1 part Fernet to 2 parts Coke, but it has to be served while watching 8 or 9 different types of meat grilling outdoors at my uncle’s house and watching soccer.”
We’ll stick with his housemade empanadas and a glass of wine on the north Oxbow deck.