In a petite deep fryer, Luis Gomez drops three empanadas into bubbling oil, watches as they turn golden brown and deftly lifts them out, as a hungry customer practically smacks her lips.
The empanada crust is tender, not the least greasy, and the meat filling is spicy and delicious.
“A lot of people make fun of my little fire, but I make magic with my little fire,” Gomez said.
Customers at Ethereal Brewing in the Distillery District agree, because Gomez is developing a food fan base. “Finger lickin’ good,” said Chad Dibble, diving into a basket of empanadas.
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Gomez makes 40 to 50 empanadas a night; also, arepas, a cornmeal treat stuffed with cheese, deep-fried and sprinkled with Himalayan pink salt, and Puerto Rican tostones, which are mashed and fried plantains.
“I want people to know Puerto Rican food. It is delicious. And it is not the same as Mexican,” said Gomez, 35, who came to the states from Puerto Rico in 1999.
About 10 years later he traveled to Kentucky to visit friends, and ended up staying. He worked various jobs, but his dream was to be in the food business.
Last year he approached Andrew Bishop and Brandon Floan, owners of Ethereal Brewing Co., 1224 Manchester Street, asking if he could get on their schedule to sell his empanadas.
“He had that entrepreneurial spirit. He kept coming in, three or four times a weeks, saying, ‘Hey, guys, give me a chance,’” Bishop said.
Ethereal schedules its food vendors two to three months in advance, Bishop said. “Eventually, we had an open spot on a Friday and brought him in.”
Gomez opened Rico’s Empanadas last fall. His food stand in the back of the bar area is typically open Friday nights and, recently, he’s been there on Tuesdays for Trivia Night. Empanadas are $3 each.
“We really liked what he had to offer and his price point,” Bishop said. “You can tell what he does stems from his background, and his childhood and his culture.”
Gomez cooked a lot with his mom, Bishop said, “And it shows.”
He makes a Puerto Rican hot sauce he learned from his mother that calls for fermented pineapple and habanero peppers. Customers can pour the hot sauce on their empanadas, and buy a bottle to take home for $12.
Gomez laughed as he recalled as a child in Puerto Rico, “If I said a bad word, they put hot sauce in my mouth.”
Being at Ethereal is “a dream come true,” Gomez said. “I wanted all my life to have this opportunity.”
He added, “I try to take risks because I don’t want to regret anything when I get older. I don’t want to say, ‘I wish I could have brought Puerto Rican and Caribbean food to Lexington.’”
Customers Greg Davis and Vanessa Oliver are vegetarians and mentioned to Gomez they couldn’t eat meat-filled empanadas. The next time he came, he had vegetarian empanadas with a filling made of cactus, onions, quinoa, green and red peppers and mole sauce.
“They were delicious,” Oliver said, adding, “He’s so creative.”
Gomez has a small empanada cart he takes to local events and festivals, but his goal is to earn enough money to buy a food truck.
Having a portable food vendor like Gomez who comes to the brewery, sets up and sells food has been a good arrangement for Ethereal. Others who sell at Ethereal are Hogfathers BBQ and Daughters’ Southern.
Ethereal owner Bishop said, “The brewery is already a 9- or 10-hour a day job. Being able to bring in a food truck gives us some variety, and we don’t have to worry about managing the food side. It’s a good arrangement.”
Editor note: This story was altered from its original posted version to correct the spelling of Brandon Floan’s name.
Beverly Fortune is a former Herald-Leader reporter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.