Wharton: Sampling empanadas in Bountiful
Bountiful • Sometimes you find priceless little local gems in the strangest places.
Take, for example, the Lucuma Pastry Shoppe and Cafe. Located at 571 W. 2600 South in a nondescript strip mall in Bountiful, this is the last place I'd expect to find genuine Peruvian empanadas and tamales and South American deserts such as alfajores, pionono and tres leches or the ethnic fruit drink chicha arada.
Esther Chu-Jon, a Peruvian native married to an industrial engineer of Chinese descent who lived in Australia for three years, has been making empanadas on and off of several years as Mia's Empanadas factory. But she would have to close for several months at a time so she could return to Peru to take of her mother.
So her son Jose decided to open Lucuma, which is named after a large Peruvian fruit with an orange flesh rarely seen in Utah.
"Lucuma is a fruit that is typically found in Peru and looks like a big avocado," he said. "It has a round huge seed inside. I went back to Peru in 2006, the first time in 18 years, and was able to taste it in ice cream. It is so common in Peru, it is like our vanilla here."
The Chu-Jons mix in familiar menu choices such as quiche, salads, soups, tarts, lemon bars and scones.
In addition to food, the cafe includes walls filled with original paintings. On Friday and Saturday, local musicians perform on a small stage. There is a chess board and comfortable couches inside the colorful restaurant.
Jose, a graduate of nearby Woods Cross High who is just a few hours short of getting a psychology degree from the University of Utah, said he has worked on and off in the restaurant business since he was 8, when he used to bus tables. He called Esther "a powerful woman" who gave him the confidence to own his own business.
"I am an artist at heart," he said. "I love art. I play the piano, paint and bake."
Jose said he loves taking something ordinary and making it beautiful.
And empanadas are a perfect example of that.
Many cultures have make meals of baked dough on the outside with flavored meats, cheeses, vegetables, spices and even eggs on the inside. Think Italian calzones, Russian perogis, El Salvadoran pupusas, Australian pies, Morrison meat pies or English pasties to name just a few.
Each are slightly different. Esther makes about 15 different varieties including savory beef, vegan chick pea, chicken pot pie or alfredo, three cheese or spinach and cheese. She has let the Chinese and Australian influences in her life infuse some of the flavoring.
At the restaurant, the empanadas are served with a dipping sauce that can be spicy or mild. I loved the aji primavera that looked like fry sauce but, made from jalapeno, garlic, onions and tomatoes, tasted nothing like it.
She uses nothing but natural ingredients, no lard in the dough and a great grain called quinoa that is high in protein, low in fat and has a good dose of amino acid. The empanadas can be purchased frozen to be baked not microwaved at home and are less expensive when purchased that way.
Still, this seems like pretty exotic cuisine in a town filled with typical American fast food restaurants.
"It's really hard to start something that is not typical Bountiful food," said Jose. "These are superconservative people who don't try anything new and are set in their ways with American foods, ice creams and Mexican food. I knew I was starting a risk with this business."
The colorful little restaurant is visually appealing, inexpensive and offers a different kind of tasty food as well as wonderful desserts.