At Durham's Makus Empanadas, bright orange letters stretched across one wall deliver a big promise about the little pastries you're about to eat.
"Our food is made with the belief," it reads, "that lifelong memories can be formed around something simple."
Family photos of the owners, brothers Hernan and Santiago Moyano and old pal Ricky Yofre, hang nearby. Together, the mantra and those captured moments suggest that Makus aims to evoke the fuzzy feelings of a close-knit family gathering in Buenos Aires. The first time I read the wall, I soon imagined happy people sipping Malbec and eating empanadas while communing in some lush cobblestone courtyard, the surrounding gardens draped in purple and blue jacaranda blooms.
Otherwise, though, the austere modern décor makes the experience feel more like grabbing a quick bite at a generic cafe in a strip mall, which is mostly correct. Makus is essentially a fast-food eatery in Hope Valley Commons, the brick-and-mortar outgrowth of a long-standing corporate catering routine. To make a lifelong memory of that, the food will need to leave quite the mark.
Well, at least it left questions.
As I sauntered up to the counter, the music blaring overhead exacerbated the incongruity between the restaurant's mission statement and atmosphere. Instead of focusing on which of the nine varieties of empanadas I wanted, I found myself musing over lyrics: "I'm slowly losing hold of everything I got/You're looking so damn hot."
I only learned later that this was "I Don't Want This Night to End" by country star Luke Bryan, not an intentional jingle for Makus's steaming empanadas. American pop-country culture and Argentinian street food—what a novel combination.
The menu reflects a kindred fusion. There are classic South American flavors like chicken, beef, spinach, and corn, and another set clearly meant to tantalize the American palate—pepperoni, bacon, ham and cheese, and so on. Yes, these are re-creations of that American triumph of baked dough, the Hot Pocket, recast with a supposed South American flair.
In another patriotic homage, Makus nods to the fast-food value meal. You choose three empanadas, a drink, and a side for less than ten dollars. In true Argentinian style, this encourages samples of different fillings; in true American style (or so I thought), it would allow me to gorge for cheap.
My first observation when seeing the actual empanadas, though, was that I was going to need a few more. They were flaky and piping hot but so tiny that I tried them all on my first visit. At $2.50 each, these extra empanadas soon equal the cost of a separate sit-down meal elsewhere.
Served on a bright orange strip of paper laid over an industrial metal tray, much like what you would expect to see during a doctor's visit, each empanada comes "branded" with the initials of its respective name near the crimped edge. It took me longer to read the breaded letters than to eat the empanada bites—a clever ruse, Makus.
The shredded chicken was pleasantly spiced, the ground beef overly so. The novel sweet corn mingled well with the piquant chimichurri, a sauce traditionally used for grilled meats but at Makus meant for dunking savory pastries. The intense flavor of the pepperoni sausage overwhelmed the pastry, a combination only slightly better than a frozen Hot Pocket. And the bland cheese stuffed into almost all of the empanadas is barely worthy of the hot, crisp dough it occupies.
The chipa bread, a famous Argentinian treat, arrives as tiny balls of chewy, cheesy dough. Again, it was so small that the tasty insides could not balance the dark skin of overcooked cheese. It left an acrid, burnt taste, marring what should have been a very simple pleasure.
At Makus, the pinnacle of Ameri-Argentine quick cuisine is the "empadog," a thick hot dog ensconced in a crispy layer of baked empanada dough. But the crust around this giant version of a pig-in-a-blanket is thin enough to be pointless, again offering no bread to temper the processed dog. In all my years, I had never longed for an old-fashioned hot dog in a fluffy, white-and-brown bun more than I did when sampling the empadog. Perhaps pinnacle is the wrong word...
Surprisingly, the simple shortbread cookies—offered in cinnamon, vanilla, and lemon varieties—were the real treat. These dense, buttery delights were born to go with an espresso or cortado, though Makus only offers drip coffee. Maybe coffee suggests lingering in an Argentinian cafe rather than dipping into a fast-food spot, but Makus already crosses that line by offering Argentinian wines and American craft beers.
Fusion is an active field in the region's food scene, whether handed down from the multiethnic window of the Boricua food truck or delivered in the hominy-heavy macaroni and cheese of Luna Rotisserie, whose empanadas scoff at Makus's own hybridized efforts.
Yes, Makus crosses similarly international boundaries—and, in the form of fast food, quickly. But it's mostly a trip to nowhere. In the years when Chubby's stood out in the local food scene, Makus might have enjoyed similar prestige. But other local chefs are already beyond the next level, in the same vein for the same price.
Makus's wall promises pastries so profoundly delicious the memory of them would linger for a lifetime. The experience began to fade as soon as I could exit the shopping center's parking lot.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Out of Pocket."