Ivan Gil-Silva and Rachel Jenkins are a power couple taking on the food scene in Pittsburgh one hand pie at a time. Mi Empanada is the newest Argentine-American food pop-up specializing in, you guessed it, empanadas. Ivan’s argentine heritage and growing up with his mother’s traditional cooking led him to perfect his cooking skills, while cross-breeding the taste palettes of both his culture’s food, and the food of the country in which he lives. “There was a time when I graduated college and I was so broke, but I learned how to make bread and how to eat potatoes 20 different ways. It was around that time that I started cooking a lot, and I burnt so many things. Eventually you get really good at cooking and I refined recipes to fit not just an argentine palette, but with an appeal to the american palette,” he says. It was when he and Rachel began making empanadas for events and house parties with friends that they realized they could bring something fresh and new to Pittsburgh that they haven’t seen before.
"I’ve seen Pittsburgh grow culturally, with ramen, with fro-yo, with many foods. I remember at one point all you could get was pizza and burgers, or you go to an italian restaurant... Latin foods starting coming out not long ago, but nobody specializes in empanadas. I think Pittsburgh is ready for an empanada revolution," says Ivan.
Neither he nor Rachel really have a background in cooking besides cooking for themselves, but that didn’t stop them from wanting to cook for people in the city. The idea was born in December of last year, and from then until January was solidifying the necessary certifications and legal speed bumps that come with becoming a business. It was in February that the couple had their first pop-up as Mi Empanada LLC: a brunch event at Black Forge Coffee house where they reported that they sold out not even halfway through the event.
Now if you don’t exactly know what an empanada is, the two like to classify it as a meat pie or a hand pie. There are tons of different types of empanadas scattered through various cultures, but the argentine empanada that Mi Empanada makes is a flaky, puff pastry-type of hand pie filled with either beef or chicken, amongst other ingredients. Mi Empanada’s menu is currently running on three primary items, with Ivan explaining, “It’s in its infancy state and we’ve been just pushing a trio, which is vegetarian, chicken, and beef. We’ll branch out if we’re going to do something at Black Forge, we'll consider the vegan friends, we’ll make some vegan stuff, and sometimes people want ham and cheese so we’ll do that.” He wants to primarily push the traditional palette that he knows and loves so well, but also understands the need to appeal to the taste palettes of those in this city. Rachel has a hand in helping push that local palette by mentioning that a buffalo chicken empanada is in the works. Rachel is also the creator of the vegan empanada that they serve. “The heart is definitely there, but we want to play to other people’s palettes. It works really well here in Pittsburgh," she says, noting once more that nowhere in Pittsburgh offers specialty empanadas and that's why their business is thriving. "We wouldn’t necessarily be able to do this anywhere else. We couldn’t start this up in California or Florida even because of the popularity of them." Ivan follows up in agreement, stating, “Catering to a foodie place is very important. We need to cater to that crew because that’s the people we know. They like normally fancier foods but they’re also very experimental in a sense.”
Rachel is in fact the brains behind the marketing for Mi Empanada. Taking care of their social media and their website, while Ivan jokes that marketing is the easy part, she makes a point to say that it has been one of their hardest struggles. They both agree that “brand identity” is one of the hardest parts of starting a business. “Going back and forth between logos, how we want to be presented [has been difficult], because we are still youthful,” Rachel explains, emphasizing the fact that they want to be seen as a fun company that is to be taken seriously. “How do you brand yourself? And how do you stick with it?” These are the two most important questions Ivan says to ask in order to figure out how to work through that struggle. However, they seem to be doing just fine in the starting phase, thanks to their friends that act as the supportive foundation to keep them going. “If you have a good product, it sells. It’s been amazing how fast we’ve grown because we did something that people like. I think we also have a good connection with the city where we also have an outlet to present it with the people as well,” Ivan says. For example, Ivan’s friends who own Round Corner Cantina allow the couple to use their kitchen to make their empanadas prior to events. However, Ivan also notes, “It’s not just the people who help you get there, it’s the people you don’t know that come out.”
Mi Empanada has a pop-up every first Friday at the gallery crawl in Garfield at The Lot. Occasionally they also host pop-up brunches at Black Forge like their first event, but they have plenty of other events coming up: Crosstown Cookout at the Mon Wharf, Open Streets Pittsburgh in South Side, and an event with Studio Am in Homestead in the works. Their next big step, they say, is to get a brick and mortar, preferably in South Side, but with Lawrenceville as an option as well. To follow them around Pittsburgh and figure out where you can get your hands on their delicious empanadas, follow their Instagram @miempanadapgh and their Facebook page by searching Mi Empanada. Their menu is also listed on their website here.
Photos by Ben Petchel for Mi Empanada