The Westside speakeasy with sazón: Empanadas are the canvas for ‘Latin America in a pocket dough’
After dipping his toes in the local food scene at Home in Soquel, Argentine chef Diego Felix has put down roots in Santa Cruz, selling empanadas and, soon, tapas out of the delivery door for Kelly’s French Bakery in the Swift Street Courtyard.
The marine layer was struggling to lift from the Westside as I approached a yellow delivery door on the side of a gray industrial building in the Swift Street Courtyard. The door was locked, but a bright blue sign above it declared, “Fonda Felix Empanadas!”
A menu posted to the window asked guests to ring the bell, assuring me that folks are inside. As I did so, I briefly wondered if I was supposed to know a password, but less than a minute later, a friendly face emerged, ready to take my order. Afterward, he disappeared mysteriously behind the door again, the lock clicking behind him, before reappearing with six hot, golden, tightly crimped empanadas.
Given the speakeasy vibe, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something illicit about these humble-looking pastries. They seemed innocent enough. Each flavor was indicated by a color or pastry fold, and a little flyer, like one you’d find in a box of chocolates, was included to help me figure out what’s what. There was Peruvian shredded chicken with stewed tomatoes, Argentina beef with olives, and Monterey black cod with fennel and potato.
There were also three meatless fillings: a vegan filling with black beans and plantains, one with summer squash and white cheddar, and one with spinach and caramelized onions. The crust was tender and the fillings were delicious, bolstered by robust Latin American spices. The bright green chimichurri sauce that accompanied them was fresh, herbaceous and tangy, and I gladly poured it over each bite.
Later, when I asked Diego Felix, the chef behind Fonda Felix, how he came to have a speakeasy-style empanada restaurant inside Kelly’s Bakery, he laughed and explained that he is no stranger to speakeasies. A native of Argentina, he and his wife, Sanra Ritten, had a speakeasy restaurant there for 15 years.
Two years ago, they moved to Santa Cruz from Buenos Aires to raise their family and help Linda Ritten and Brad Briske, Sanra’s sister and brother-in-law, open their restaurant Home in Soquel. Now permanently stateside, Felix reestablished himself as Collectivo Felix, a concept he describes as “an underground restaurant gypsy traveling cooking band.” He began touring the U.S. with his Latin American-meets-Californian cooking style and a passion for sourcing local ingredients, putting on private dinners and events.
That all stopped with COVID-19. “There were no more dinners, no more events. I had to reinvent myself,” says Felix. Luckily, he soon met Mark and Kelly Sanchez, the owners of Kelly’s French Bakery, after they tried his food. They had recently closed the front-of-house portion of the bakery (the wholesale side is still operating) and invited him to use their kitchen.
Kelly Sanchez, the bakery’s namesake, was impressed with Felix’s food when she and her husband tasted it at a pop-up a few years ago at Home. “We knew we could get along, and we think his empanadas are fantastic,” Sanchez says of their partnership.
Pivoting from his more creative cuisine, Felix decided that the humble empanada, a staple of Latin American cooking, would be an excellent canvas for his culinary vision.
“I use the empanada as an excuse to recreate my sazón,” says Felix. There’s no direct translation for sazón in English, but he describes it as something that goes beyond flavor. “It’s more the spirit of how you cook something.” His empanadas are “Latin America in a pocket dough,” an opportunity for him to create and rethink new flavors while using ingredients from this area.
A speakeasy-style takeout-only restaurant worked well within the limitations of the space and the constantly changing map of COVID regulations. Under the name Fonda Felix, his empanadas are also distributed to nearby Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing and Humble Sea Brewing Co., as well as Beauregard Winery’s Slow Coast Wine Bar in Davenport, Ser Winery in Aptos and through Rebyl Food, an online market based in Half Moon Bay. In the next few weeks, guests will see the menu expand to include Latin American-style tapas. Like the empanadas, dishes will be easy to take home or to the beach.
Fonda Felix is one of a small but growing network of food businesses serving regional Latin American cuisine, including Copal, a Oaxacan restaurant on Mission Street, Pana Venezuelan Food Truck, which serves traditional arepas, and pop-up Areparia 831, which serves vegetarian and vegan spins on classic Venezualan dishes.
While Felix is the chef behind the scenes, he compares himself to a lead musician in a band. Expanding his menu will allow his trusted staff to express their own creative vision.
“The umbrella of the concept is Collectivo Felix,” he explains. “I am the ringmaster but I always want to feature other artists. It’s about what I do but also about bringing other people in, like a jazz band. I trust the people that I cook with, that I play with, that they can bring their own sazon to this concept.”