The colder weather months, which she affectionately refers to as “coquito season,” are Elisa Milan’s favorite time of year for business.
The culinary entrepreneur known as the ”Empanada Lady” has attracted a considerable following in Baltimore with her spins on Puerto Rican staples such as empanadas and coquito, a creamy coconut drink usually served cold during the winter months. She has some 11,800 followers on Instagram, and her food almost always sells out at events.
“It’s definitely busy,” Milan said from the kitchen of her eatery at Motor House, a mixed-use space that combines food concepts, arts and event areas on the border of the Station North and Old Goucher neighborhoods. “People are celebrating and congregating. I sell bottles of coquito by the gallons.”
Milan, an American who has a Puerto Rican mother and a Black father, has tapped into her blended heritage and created a burgeoning culinary empire that reflects both cultures with an undeniable Baltimore flair for dishes and drinks. The result is that she has attracted a large Black clientele throughout the mid-Atlantic region. Many have never had versions of these dishes because Baltimore has not had a large Puerto Rican community.
Cooking also helps Milan, 31, bridge the cultural disconnect that she has felt throughout life as a person of Black and Latina heritage.
Born in California, she lived in the Bronx until she was 6 years old and then grew up in Baltimore.
“I didn’t grow up with a lot of Puerto Rican friends. I had Latin homegirls. But not a lot of Puerto Ricans. My Puerto Rican experience was from my Puerto Rican family. My dad, who is Black, was not around. There was a disconnect. My Black friends filled that,” she said. “Now, I’m able to bring them both [Black and Puerto Rican people] together. I’m proud. I’m happy. It feels aligned with my journey. It feels like it is so much more than the food. It’s the culture, the community.”
Jessica van Dop DeJesus, author of the 2019 book “The Dining Traveler Guide to Puerto Rico,” loves what Milan is doing in Baltimore.
“This is a great way to expose Puerto Rican cuisine to Maryland,” said van Dop DeJesus, who is based in Brussels. “I don’t believe in the word authentic because I think every cuisine adapts to its environment and ingredients that are accessible in that market. I enjoy when chefs play with traditional ingredients and flavors to create something new and fun.”
American Black and Puerto Rican cultures are ripe for cultural fusion because of their shared ancestry and history in the United States, where they have traditionally worked together in cities such as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.
“It’s fair to say that in the Northeast, these groups gravitated toward each other because back then — during the ‘50s and ‘60s — you had to,” said van Dop DeJesus, who grew up in Puerto Rico and Rochester, New York.
She recalled that her mother went to Rochester in her early teens and worked with the Black community in the ‘60s. That close working relationship resulted in friendships that led to an incorporation of culture. For example, her mother’s dish of neck bones with macaroni and sofrito seasoning arose from the blending of cultures.
Milan suspects that if she weren’t cooking, she would still be in the medical field; she previously worked with licensing out-of-state nurses through the Maryland Board of Nursing.
“They didn’t renew my contract in 2019 and that’s when I went full time as the Empanada Lady,” she explained.
Milan started the business as a dare in 2016, while she was working as an assistant at a now-defunct yoga studio in downtown Baltimore.
“The owner bet me I couldn’t make money cooking food at a work event. I brought my grandmother’s empanadas. I sold out, but I broke even. I knew I was in it after that.”
Milan first started her business as Elisa’s Empanadas, but she changed the name to The Empanada Lady after three years.
“No one ever called it that,” she recalled. “They would just say, ‘The Empanada Lady.’ I just leaned in and accepted it.”
Milan made fans out of her mostly Black customers, many of whom had never had empanadas before.
Sheri Andrews, 37, has been eating Milan’s empanadas since 2015. Milan’s empanadas are different from the ones that Andrews used to eat from corner stores in her native New Jersey.
“It’s very nostalgic. But hers are different. The dough is different, and the filling is different. She does not skimp on the filling at all. She’s giving you your money’s worth for sure,” said the Owings Mills resident. “You can taste the different cultures through the spices. Every culture has an empanada, but her spices set it apart. It’s just delicious to me.”
Morgan Bryson, 32, has been a longtime friend of Milan’s since high school. She was first introduced to empanadas when Milan’s mother had to be nudged to make the dish for the then-teenagers.
“It would make my day when she would make it. It was something you didn’t come across often,” she recalled.
Milan has taken the empanadas to the next level, according to Bryson, who lives in Randallstown.
“She doesn’t complain about making them,” Bryson said with a laugh.
And Bryson can immediately spot the differences between Milan’s empanadas and those she has consumed elsewhere.
“I definitely taste the difference. Elisa’s empanadas don’t taste like a pastry. I’ve gotten accustomed to her empanadas so much that if I had someone else’s, I would say, ‘They’re not doing it right.’”
Milan altered the size of her grandmother’s empanadas, which were smaller. She also stuffed hers with more meat filling and chunkier pieces of vegetables, and gave them a slightly spicier flavor profile. Her mother and grandmother only made traditional beef empanadas, but she makes those as well as empanadas with chicken, pork, salmon or shrimp.
“When I first started, nobody knew anything about empanadas,” she recalled, adding that she initially began cooking out of the kitchen of her then-Cockeysville apartment. “Being in Baltimore, I’m a lot of people’s first experience with the food and culture.”
Milan attributes the larger portions of her empanadas and other dishes to the Black tradition of serving large, elaborate meals.
“It’s the abundance,” she said. “We are fruitful. It shows up in the generosity of our portion size. We think about how we want to eat. If you spend $40 to $50, you want to have some food for later.”
Milan has also collaborated with Black chef Ericka Loyal to create a seafood salad that keeps customers stumped about what’s in the unique seasoning combination that coats the hearty, cold dish composed of jump lump crab meat, shrimp and pasta.
“It becomes a fun guessing game,” Milan said. “We’re also generous with the portion size — just like the empanada. You’re getting a lot for what you pay for.”
Milan’s “nada sauce,” which she serves with her empanadas, is also a nod to blending Black and Puerto Rican cuisines. Traditionally, empanadas are served with a mayo ketchup. But Milan amps up her sauce by adding chili powder and lime in addition to her holy trinity of Puerto Rican seasonings: sofrito, sazon and adobo.
“That’s a good example of the fusion,” Milan said. “Empanadas aren’t traditionally spicy. It is a way to add the spice on the side.”
The nada sauce has gotten so popular, Milan now sells it by the bottle, in addition to serving it with her stuffed empanadas.
When it comes to coquito, the Puerto Rican equivalent of eggnog, Milan completely flips the script and adds alcohols and liquors that are popular in Black Baltimore communities such as Hennessy, various brands of Cognac and Crown Royal vanilla. She also has nonalcoholic and vegan versions of the drink. Traditionally, coquito is made with white rum, she explained. National Coquito Day was on Wednesday.
While Milan has put her blended spin on many Puerto Rican foods, one thing that she won’t do — at her family’s request — is sell coquito “out of season.” Most members of her family are even cool with teaching employees how to use altered family recipes when cooking for the public.
“They are happy for me. They are rooting for me. My grandmother is saying, ‘You are sharing recipes.’ She’s proud of me, but she’s tight about it. But my grandmother [who lives in the Bronx] is still adapting,” Milan said with a laugh. “I tell her: ‘Mama, they can’t do it like me. It’s mine.’ She’s coming around.”