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Fifty-two thousand empanadas. That's La Sirena Clandestina general manager Joe DiTola's estimate of how many empanadas the Fulton Market South American bar and restaurant has served since opening in late 2012, mainly because everybody who comes in orders an empanada or two—everybody. "When we first opened, every ticket said one meat and one vegetable empanada and ceviche, one meat and one vegetable empanada and ceviche," DiTola says.
You can tell the two varieties apart by the way the dough is folded—the crinkled edges mean meat; the rounded edges mean vegetable; a trifold means it's the breakfast empanada, served at weekend brunch. When they first started, chef/owner John Manion made them himself, because he was the only one who knew how to make the folds. "No matter what else I had to do, part of my day would be folding a couple of hundred empanadas. I finally said, 'The empanadas are killing me.'"
One thing Manion wouldn't do, from an early point, is make the dough in-house. He imports a premade dough from Argentina, where the style is baked empanadas with a flaky, pie-like crust rather than the heavy-shelled fried ones typical in Brazil and "everywhere else in the world," he says. "It's a great product. We couldn't do it anyway, we'd need big rollers and you have to let it sit for 24 hours and so on. But the product is so great, and so consistent, I'm happy to buy it. It's an investment, but it's worth it."
The folds indicate the basic ingredients—meat or vegetables—but within those categories they've made dozens of variations: the Hoppin' John Manion with field peas from South Carolina, French onion soup, Philly cheesesteak, blue cheese and mushrooms, oxtail stew, a pho-panada, bean burrito, pork taco . . . "The variety is insane," DiTola says, but "it's an opportunity to have fun and go beyond beef picadillo."
Lately there have been two extra hands in the kitchen—Mark Steuer, formerly of Carriage House, who's joined Manion in his Viva La Rev restaurant group beginning with El Che Bar in the West Loop, and Bryce Caron, who has been both a pastry and savory chef at places like Blackbird and Graham Elliot, and most recently worked with Steuer at the Carriage House. Manion says, "Any time we have some down time, we start kicking ideas for new empanada flavors around. Because boredom is death."
And so it goes along, selling anywhere from 30 to 120 empanadas a day, Manion estimates. But all that's about to change.
La Sirena Clandestina sits opposite a massive, old cold-storage building which will be the new Google offices sometime, Manion says, "between April and next year." It is literally the closest restaurant to the building, and the next closest ones are ones like Next and Moto, which don't serve lunch.
Right now lunch at La Sirena is a quiet thing with a dozen or so diners at any given time. It will be a different thing when the doors open at Google and hundreds stream out. Manion is trying to figure out what they can serve, quickly, at the quantities that the demand will call for. He talks about putting in a cast-iron grill for quick frying, and things like that. But he knows one thing: it's going to involve making a lot of empanadas. After all, if you search "empanadas" and "La Sirena Clandestina," you get about 16,700 results—on Google.