Walk past Cancun Deli Grocery in Longwood on any given morning or early afternoon and chances are, crowds of tourists inside and outside are devouring empanadas.
“I’ve tried Argentine empanadas and the famous empanadas from Spain, but these are unique,” said Fernando Morgado, a tourist from Madrid, Spain.
“This one, for example, I like that it’s stuffed. It is different because in each place they do the filling in a different way. The dough is very thin and very crunchy,” he added, about his shredded beef empanada.
It’s the 49-year-old’s first time in New York City—and the United States. Morgado and his partner, Alberto Rosado, ended up at Cancun Deli Grocery’s at at 908 E. 163rd Street, because it is now a stop on their city tour.
Every day tour groups stop by, starting around 9 a.m. Smaller groups tend to visit in the morning and larger groups arrive later, arriving by a motorcoach that seats just over 50 passengers. Sunday is the deli’s busiest day — the wave of tourists can last until 2 p.m., according to owners Nathalie Rodriguez and Christian Peña.
“Every single day they stop, and that is what basically helps us keep the doors open,” Peña explained, given they bought the business just before the pandemic and struggled throughout it.
Rodriguez is the empanada chef. When she and Peña purchased the store in March 2020, they weren’t hoping for success by selling what most bodegas or convenience stores normally do. The husband and wife team saw their new venture as a launching pad for Rodriguez’s empanadas.
“I have always liked food, cooking. So I started in my house,” Rodriguez said.
Even though they are popular in the Dominican Republic, where she is from, she learned how to make empanadas on her own, from reading cookbooks to watching YouTube videos, after she and her husband moved to the US.
“I started testing, making, and giving them out to my neighbors, and the whole world said, ‘Why you don’t sell the empanadas? They are really good,” the 43-year-old added.
Cancun Deli Grocery is kitty-corner to the mural of rapper Big Pun on Rogers Place. Given that the South Bronx is the birthplace of hip-hop, the mural is a popular stop on city tours.
With so many tour groups passing by, Peña said, he and Rodriguez started bringing their empanadas out for the tour guides to try. One of those guides is Carlos Agosto from tour company Interviajes. Agosto said the Big Pun mural is the first stop in the Bronx during his city tour. Now, the empanadas are part of that stop.
“So people like to see, tourists like to see inside places. So it’s the perfect excuse, perfect excuse to see the ‘tienda,’ ” Agosto explained.
Angel Rubio, a Real’s Tours NYC tour guide, said his group also stops for the Big Pun mural, but he started bringing his groups over to try the empanadas or anything else in the store about six months ago. He gives his groups 20 minutes at the bodega. It also breaks up the tour, a chance to refresh.
“And we especially bring them here so they can live and feel how we do here in the Bronx,” Angel Rubio, who lives near Fordham University, told the Hunts Point Express.
“These stores are very nice, and they serve the community,” he explained.
Empanadas filled with chicken, beef, cheese, and ham and cheese were Rodriguez’s first four recipes. Now, there are 15 different fillings to choose from, such as traditional flavors like shredded beef to more inventive recipes she’s concocted like “Hot Dog Special” or “Philly Cheesesteak.” Rodriguez said her empanadas are made from scratch, including the sauces that fill them.
Rubio calls them the “Super Empanadas del Bronx!” His favorite is simply a cheese-filled empanada. “Delicioso,” he said.
Nuria Miranda, her husband Ernest Romero, and their 11-year-old son Aaron Romero tried three different empanadas: ham and cheese, tomato and cheese, and shredded beef. The family, visiting from Barcelona, liked the beef-filled empanada the best. Romero and Aaron rated it a nine out of ten, while Miranda gave it an eight and a half.
“Very full, and for the price in the United States, a luxury. Yeah, everything here is expensive,” Romero said.
Trying a Cancun Deli Grocery empanada will set you back $4, unless you opt for the Cuban empanada, which costs $4.50. Peña admits some locals have complained because of their higher prices.
“They see that you could go to another convenience store, and it’s maybe $2. She’s trying to do like, almost like a gourmet type of product, and we fill it up really good,” he explained.
A brand new machine still wrapped in plastic sits at the back of the convenience store. Rodriguez claimed it can help assemble up to 2,000 empanadas per hour. Currently, the popular Latin American pastries at the shop are filled, folded, and the edges crimped by hand. However, the new machine will help keep up with demand.
When she is in the kitchen, Rodriguez said she forgets all of her problems.
“I focus on cooking, and it seems like it is an energy that I transmit, and you feel the flavor. I make it with a lot of love as if for a family member.”