A great empanada starts with hands. Hands to make it and eat it. Wherever you’ve had an empanada in the world – South America, Mexico, Europe or Asia – you can appreciate that what you’re about to eat is a masterfully-crafted creation.
The pastry’s dough is cut into 6-inch diameter circles. Next comes the filling: pork, chicken, beef, cheese, veggies or a combination thereof. Once loaded, it’s folded and the dough’s edge is pressed into ridges. The empanadas are deep-fried for about five minutes. What you get is a flaky, meat pie turnover.
Empanada preparation is an art form, especially when a food icon makes it. Manual Augusto “Marcello” Marini, who came to the U.S. from Argentina with his wife Pelusa in 1968, perfected the touch with his secret ingredient of love.
“Empanada means ‘in between bread,’” said Marini, founder and patriarch of The Original Marini’s Empanada House. As a boy, Marini learned the food originated from Galicia, Spain. “Whether in Chile, Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, you do empanadas for everything that is important for the life of a human.”
Food dynasty begins with a customer question
One of Marini’s dreams was to come to America for a better life and the other was to open a restaurant. The Marinis started with an Argentinian pastry shop in a tiny location in the Medical Center on Fannin Street. An inquiry by a customer who came in to buy Pelusa’s cookies, known as alfajores, (mini disc shaped ‘sandwiches’ with leche) asked if they made empanadas. Hence, a food loved worldwide became a Houston institution.
Continuing to build a following, Marini’s moved three more times. Loyal customers followed with each move while new ones got hooked.
As they relocated to 2339 Bissonnet, Marini, who was a professional TV journalist in Argentina, was launching the first Spanish language TV talk show for KHOU’s public and social affairs programming in 1971. Nearby KTRK Channel 13 had taken notice of Marini’s empanadas and dubbed them the “sandwich of South America and a new adventure for America.”
This attention resulted in a long line forming outside the restaurant. “The story put us on the map,” said Marini. The restaurant moved to 1517 Westheimer near Montrose where it became one of Houston’s most beloved restaurants for 20 years.
Devastating fire doesn’t destroy dreams
In 1985, things abruptly changed when a fire destroyed the entire restaurant. Marcello and Pelusa didn’t give up. With faith, family and community support, they persevered to continue and find a new location.
Family discovers Westchase
“Sixteen years ago we found this place,” said Marini, describing how they selected 10001 Westheimer in Carillon Shopping Center as their new home. While strolling around Carillon he and his family noticed a for lease sign.
“We said, ‘Oh my God.’ We went to La Madeleine for breakfast next door and called the real estate company. A lady answered and asked, ‘Are you the Marinis that makes empanadas?’ Yes, we are,” said Marcello. “She said come on over.”
“Being in Westchase we are blessed. Even during the pandemic we’re blessed by God to keep the business open. Thanks to the customers and the area, people are coming in from 50 years ago. We are blessed by customers,” said Marini.
A man recently brought his grand kids to Marini’s and asked Marcello if he remembered him eating at Marini’s when he was six years old. Lifelong devotion is found in generations of people whose craving for Marini’s food has yet to wane. They return for a warm experience that transcends generations.
Marcello Marini tingles with joy knowing people keep coming back while his own children and grandchildren are keeping their hands on the business.
The Original Marini’s Empanada House