Pamela Canales arrived in Miami from Quillota, Chile, in 1973. In 1979, she started a humble business: baking and selling Chile's flaky, egg-washed empanadas from her house. They're hefty half moons that weigh more than expected. One plumped up with chopped shrimp, mozzarella, and jack and ricotta cheeses is flecked with minuscule yet pungent nubs of the smoked chili pepper called merkén. The fiery, slightly tart flakes are an essential part of the cuisones of the Mapuches, an indigenous people who once dominated the central region of Chile now called Araucanía.
What prompted demand for her empanadas? It wasn't just the chilies, but also the tender crusts that peel away on the inside in delicate shreds. They are like a croissant consuming an empanadas from the inside.
Business began getting crazy. By the early 1990s, she was waking up at 4:30 a.m. to begin making more than 1,000 empanadas daily. "I couldn't do one more," she says in a raspy, jovial cadence. Pamela's Delicatessen opened in 1992 near Tropical Park.
"I used to go to school smelling like empanadas," says her son Christian Carrasco. "They told me I smelled like pizza. I hated it." But those empanadas helped keep the family afloat and gave Canales the ability to earn a living while caring for two young sons.
They didn't stray far. Carrasco began helping out around his mom's wood-paneled restaurant when he was 18. Now 31, he seems to handle the bulk of running the business. Still, he and his mother hold court daily behind a chest-high counter that on a recent afternoon is packed with glass bottles of cola de mono. The name translates to "monkey tail." It's a Chilean version of eggnog, consumed during the holidays and perfumed with sweet, aromatic cloves and fortified with aguardiente.
Behind them await some of Pamela's finest assets: baskets full of bread called hallulla, doblado, amasado, and coliza. The last greets diners with a piquant salsa called pebre. They're dense, starchy loaves. The flat hallulla rounds are a touch yeasty and a common vessel for Chilean sandwiches such as the chacerero. Here, the hallulla carries churrasco (other varieties are made with roast pork) with tomatoes, green beans, chili peppers, and mayo.
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Yet the best dishes involve seafood. Unlike many Latin American cuisines, Chilean food focuses mainly on the sea. The kingklip, also called congrio colorado or pink-cusk eel, is a variety found in the Southern Hemisphere and has a texture similar to that of sturdy monkfish. Yet it also offers the buttery richness of Chilean sea bass — ahem, Patagonian toothfish. Chile's beloved poet Pablo Neruda pined for the fish in "Oda al Caldillo de Congrio": "It's mottled skin slips off like a glove/Leaving the grape of the sea exposed to the world."
At Pamela's, it's best drowned in a velvety cream sauce shocked with the creamy salinity of sea urchins ($14.99). Order an extra hunk of bread to sop up the remaining yellow-orange streaks while watching Canales and Carrasco banter with the regulars. It's like popcorn and a good movie.