An Empanada Carny Roadshow: Meet The People Behind Viva Empanada

Chivonn: Which is a good thing. We put out samples once and it was, I’m gonna take this and walk away. We know that it’s a good product at a good price.
Travis: We have repeat customers every time.
Chivonn: We sell them to people uncooked and they take them home and freeze them after asking how they can prepare them.
Travis: Nick Elmi recently came by and bought a shitload for his whole staff.
Chivonn: The repeat customers, it’s a statement to the fact that we’re always changing our menu, always have a vegan/vegetarian option, a dessert one, some poultry and a beef or a pork based one—something for everybody. We’re going to start having warm drinks for the wintertime. Warm horchata. In the summer, deep fried ice cream, prickly pear lemonade.
Travis: So, at the Rittenhouse farmers’ market, Zsa’s Ice Cream does ice cream sandwiches, and they come over and give us one and are like, wrap this up and deep fry it. So that’s starting to happen, which is hilarious. It was literally an Oreo ice cream sandwich in an empanada.
Chivonn: Give us $2, we’ll deep fry anything. If we can stick it in this wrapper, we’ll deep fry it.

A Quote 4Brion: Tell me about a few more empanada options.
Travis: We’re doing one that’s stuffed French toast. It will have mulled maple syrup—mulled with ginger, peaches cloves—and on the inside, it’s mascarpone, bananas, and Nutella, with cinnamon sugar on the outside. A roasted beet one with goat cheese and orange habanero marmalade. The samosa one was pretty banging. It had peas, potatoes, cilantro—all that stuff. There was a mango pineapple fermented habanero [sauce] to dip it in.
Chivonn: We did the taco one.
Travis: With chorizo and nopales.
Chivonn: With a jalopeno crema dipping sauce.

Brion: How does it represent your culinary background?
Travis: It’s really just revisiting old classics. We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re not putting spheres into these things. It’s literally everything that I’ve learned, which is great because you open a Latin restaurant, you’re putting out Latin food. You open up an Italian restaurant, you’re putting out Italian food. You can have your own variations but you’re putting out Italian food. It’s the great thing about empanadas. I’ve worked every hole-in-the-wall, fine dining, random-ass job you can imagine. Went to Thailand a few years ago, took a bunch of classes and so this last week we were running a green curry with chicken empanada. It’s a lot of fun. She doesn’t really cook but she’s a really fast learner, so we just kinda figure out a menu and prep it all together. A lot of times, we have friends show up, which is great. Crack a few beers. You got three or four friends standing around. All of a sudden you got enough prep for three hundred and fifty empanadas done. Right now we’re just drawing on our—
Chivonn: It’s just like what do you like to eat? What can I think of that will go well in these empanadas and it’s really whatever you can think of and us pushing the boundaries of what we can stick in that fryer, what we can dust that empanada shell with and what’s going to work and what’s in season. Especially for the produce, what’s in season and what can we use to support our local markets. Putting little touches on it and personalizing it, making it our own and having these interactions with people and they become part of the joke when Travis tells them how much the empanadas cost.

He’s there going:
Doing a special:
One for five!
Two for ten!
Four for twenty!
Travis: We’ve become carnies. We’re literally carnies and we’re just trying to sell our product to each passerby. It’s amazing. It’s liberating. As opposed to standing in your dwelling and being like, I really hope someone comes in here and buys my product today. You’re out there and you get that whole, spontaneous, I didn’t expect to buy an empanada when I walked buy—not one—okay, some people come because they know we have empanadas, but most people are walking by and are like, the hell’s that. The fact that we sell out almost every event that we do—it’s just a great feeling. They’re not coming for us. They don’t know we’re there and we’re still doing whatever we’re doing. I don’t know. It’s everything. It’s the right combination.

courtesy of Viva Empanadas.

courtesy of Viva Empanadas.

Brion: Besides fried shit here, what else do you use to draw people in.
Chivonn: Made in America.
Travis: They’re great stocking stuffers.
Chivonn: Voted best food truck in Philly by his [Travis’] mom.
Travis: I was thinking of changing the prices:
Hey we’ve got empanadas: 1 for 5, 2 for 12, 3 for 20! [laughs]
Chivonn: [Laughs] That’s great!
Travis: That’s what we do. You get to see peoples’ level of—
Chivonn: How quick they are to catch on.
Travis: Some people think it’s hilarious. Other people are just offended that you’re talking to them. And it’s just fun. It’s a lot of fun. We’ve had this lady, she’s come twice. The first week, she was like, could you guys come back next week, these are great. But could you leave him at home though?
Chivonn: [laughing] I’m stuck with him so….
Travis: We’re already getting hecklers.

Brion: [To Travis] You mentioned some of the places you’ve worked at and how the empanadas go all over the place. What are the cuisines you’ve worked with?
Travis: American. French—too obvious. A lot of Southern. A lot of Asian. Lots of your gasto-pub bullshit. You got a menu with a burger on it but you’re putting all kinds of crazy crap on there ‘cause it’s fancy.
Chivonn: Duck egg and all that.
Travis: Also did a lot of pastries when I lived out in California. Worked in a pastry/café/cake decorating department and that fucking sucked. That’s about it.

Brion: Tell me about making the dough. What went into that?
Travis: We got a guy in New Jersey who makes it for us.
Chivonn: Yeah, we’re not at the point where we can afford to make our own dough. That is something we want to do long term.
Travis: We use Rico Foods and they’re based out of Patterson, NJ. Yeah, it is just vegetable shortening, water, and flour, but I was making my own dough when I was doing the dumplings and I wanted to chew on the business end of a gun. It was so time consuming.
Chivonn: Prep for us is already hours and hours.
Travis: It takes eight hours of prep to do a four-hour event.
Chivonn: The dough is very important and since we haven’t been able to master a recipe, it’s easier to get these shells because we know what we’re working with. Also, in a year, when we have a machine, we can do our own dough.

Brion: Travis, you were saying how Chivonn is a quick learner. How much of a balance do you have in developing the menu?
Travis: We do the whole thing together. The concept is there and then all you need is to refine and tweak it. The other day she’s like,
What about beets?
I’m like, beets, yeah, let’s do it!
It’s kinda like when you’re beat boxing and somebody’s like, alright, let’s rap about this and you’re like, alright, let’s get that—it’s delicious! And you just expound upon it—that’s all we do.
Chivonn: Coming up with different ideas and I know that he has the culinary expertise to basically make anything happen. Can we do this with these fresh ingredients. Maybe, maybe not but let’s try it and see if it works. If it doesn’t then we know not to do it again.

Travis: We’ve definitely learned—One of the last ones that we’ve done was a rendition of a stuffed pepper. Bell pepper stuffed with a rice pilaf so it’s a vegetarian thing, whatever the hell that is. So we tried to do a rendition of it where we had the pilaf as the filler and we took the bell peppers and roasted them in Romesco sauce. It was awful! It took so long to make these things. It had eight ingredients. But the one we did that had sausage, egg, and cheese was the best thing you ever ate. But this one where we spent 8, 9 hours on that had a ton of components…it tasted kinda good but it was like….nahhhh.
Brion: Didn’t you have one a week or two ago with Romesco sauce?
Chivonn: That was last week. That was the stuffed pepper one.
Brion: Yeah. I had that. That was awesome.
Chivonn: It was good but the amount of time, ingredients and labor that went into it, it wasn’t at our standards of us eating something and being like [pounds hands together] oh, yes—this is amazing!

More on local farmers’ markets & farm to table:
THE DROP-OFF: Z FOOD FARM & NOMAD PIZZA ON 7TH ST. IN PHILADELPHIA
THE DROP-OFF: IAN BRENDLE OF GREEN MEADOW FARM & TAPROOM ON 19TH
GONE BABY GONE? ENJOYING SUMMER’S LAST GASPS

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