Amid the sea of pizza places, sandwiches shops and pub fare lining Main Street in Every Collegetown, USA, Petra's Empanadas in Kutztown is a welcome break from the norm.
In fact, there's something about an empanada that seems to lend itself to campus life. It's handheld. It comes in different varieties. It's affordable. And it's delicious, of course.
Perhaps then it will come as no surprise a recent Kutztown University graduate is behind the new Latin American restaurant.
Shamin Malik first had the idea to make and sell empanadas to students while she was attending classes at KU. Before long, she was developing a full-fledged business plan.
In February, just two months after earning her degree, Malik opened Petra's Empanadas with her mom, Altagarcia Martinez, in a downtown storefront at 164 W. Main St. The property was previously TK's Sushi House.
Despite little to no advertising or marketing — Petra's doesn't even have a Facebook page yet — business "exploded," Malik said.
It turns out empanadas aren't strictly for young people, either.
"I was only expecting college students, but I've actually gotten a lot of town people that come in here," said Malik, balancing an interview and running a restaurant like a seasoned pro. "People walk by and they'll be like, 'Oh, that wasn't there before,' so they walk in, they want to try it.
"A lot of parents, too."
"Friendly for everybody"
For the uninitiated, an empanada is a type of pastry made from dough, stuffed with savory ingredients, then fried — similar to a turnover.
Though the dish originates from Spain and is common across Latin America, it's accessible, using plenty of familiar ingredients.
At Petra's Empanadas, fillings include chicken, ground beef, ham and cheese, Philly cheesesteak, shrimp, vegetables and carnitas, or Mexican pork. Cheese is also available at no extra charge.
Each empanada costs $2.50.
They're tasty on their own, but are enhanced by Petra's "home sauce." Served on the side, the tomato-based dipping sauce is blended with garlic, onions and other Latin seasonings that complement the empanadas.
"I was in Spain in the summer and fell in love with the sauce over there," Malik said.
She set out to replicate the flavor.
"We went through two months of trial and error and we found the taste that we like," she said. "It's supposed to be a little bit spicier, but we wanted to tone it down so it was friendly for everybody."
Malik and Martinez are of Dominican Republic descent, as is their empanada recipe calling for butter in the dough. The practice might be unorthodox to some and gives the pastry a lighter texture. This is a feature, not a mistake.
"I've got a lot of, 'Oh, I usually have them a little bit thicker, it usually has this and that inside,'" said Malik, seemingly responding to a bad Yelp review. "The thing is, we're Dominican, so Dominicans make it a little bit different.
"If you go to any country in South America, Latin America, it's gonna be a little different."
Petra's Empanadas is a family operation through and through. Malik followed her brother to Kutztown University. The empanada recipe comes from Martinez. After a full day at Petra's, the mother-daughter team returns to its home together in Allentown.
"It's been an adventure, for sure," Malik said. "We're together 24/7, but I wouldn't have it any other way."
Even the name "Petra's" is an homage to Martinez's mother and Malik's grandmother, Petra Manzueta, who moved the family from the Dominican to the U.S.
"She's been an inspiration to all of us," Malik said. "She was a very hardworking single mom, so we like to pay tribute to her in any way that we can. We're all here in the United States because of her."
Though Petra passed away when Malik was only an infant, she instilled an entrepreneurial spirit in her children that almost seems to have become hereditary.
"A lot of family members, they actually own their own businesses," said Malik, citing her uncles' companies Petra Best Realty and Manzueta Insurance, both in Amboy, N.J.
It might explain why Malik graduated with a bachelor's degree in communication studies, with minors in public relations, Spanish and women's and gender studies, yet immediately went into the restaurant industry at 22 years old.
"I don't regret it at all," Malik said. "Going to college didn't really teach me how to open a restaurant or a business in general, but I think it really helps me with other aspects of my life, like critical thinking.
"It teaches you more than textbook stuff. You learn a lot about yourself."
Empanadas are Malik's core business model for the time being. After all, kitchen space is limited when you take over a defunct sushi restaurant.
The entire production line is visible and out in the open at Petra's, which is cool for customers who want to see how an empanada is made. It's not the most practical for Malik, who hopes to one day offer a larger menu.
"We would love to expand the menu and add more Dominican food," Malik said. "I wasn't really expecting too much, but it's sad as a restaurant owner and a person that grew up cooking with her mom that we're so limited."
Long-term, Malik hopes to open a location in a larger city.
Malik sees nothing but the positives in bringing more diversity to the college town's dining scene.
"A lot of people are like, 'Isn't it gonna be in competition?', but it's completely different," Malik said. "Latin America is so big, so broad, different tastes, different recipes, and this is just something else that we can offer."