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Hana’s Empanada Lady brings her popular Caribbean flavors and flair to Central Maui

Sara Polanco launched the Central Maui location after explosive success selling her empanadas from her home in Hana. Photos by TOM BLACKBURN-RODRIGUEZ

Have you been thinking of a Caribbean cruise, maybe taking in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Cuba? Dreaming about enjoying wonderful meals with great service and a warm welcome?

Well, your ship has come in (and you don’t have to go off island!), and it’s been christened The Empanada Lady, a restaurant that sets sail Mondays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 2119 W. Vineyard St. in Wailuku.

Featuring flavors of the Caribbean, Empanada Lady is owned and operated by Sara Polanco, who was born in the Dominican Republic. This newly opened restaurant is already attracting customers through coconut wireless as locals and the occasional tourist spread the news about the Caribbean flair and mouth-watering tastes that Polanco features in her dishes.

The tables and chairs in the dining rooms are painted with whimsical bright Caribbean colors. Salsa and merengue music serenade lunch and dinner customers, many of whom also get to-go orders to enjoy later that evening.

Polanco uses fresh natural ingredients in her dishes and her masa, or dough, is made from scratch.

Caribbean-inspired dishes are the hallmark of The Empanada Lady, now open in Wailuku.

“I make my food with love,” she says. “When I’m making my masa, I only think good thoughts, nothing negative–that’s why it tastes so good.”

Polanco uses the masa to make the empanadas that give this delightful jewel of a restaurant its name. Empanadas are delicious Caribbean hand-made puff pastry filled with either beef, chicken, pork or a vegan version with chickpeas and spinach.

As delicious as the empanadas are, don’t neglect the croquettes. These delights are crispy on the outside with a savory creamy center. Polanco’s croquette is a small potato fritter stuffed with your favorite choice of beef or broccoli and cheese.

The name, Empanada Lady, was given to Polanco by the children of Hana after she began selling empanadas from her home there. Her marketing campaign was simple: Make a cardboard handwritten sign that said, “Empanadas,” then stand in the Hasegawa parking lot and wait to see what happened.

What happened is that she sold out within a few hours and later people began to line up outside her kitchen door, waiting for the empanadas to be ready. She wound up cooking empanadas from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday. After that, wherever she went in Hana, the nickname stayed with her and now she’s brought that moniker to Wailuku.

The Empanada Lady is the only authentic Caribbean restaurant on Maui. Many of her ingredients come from those islands, including the special spices that give her food its distinctive flavor and aroma.

Polanco is particular about how spices affect her food.

“I cook with curry,” she said, “and I can tell the difference between Jamaican curry and Asian curry.”

All the restaurant’s plate lunches are served with your choice of coconut black bean rice, guandule rice or white rice.

Polanco plans to open for breakfast on Saturday and Sunday in the future.

“People tell me there’s not much in the area for breakfast, and I want to bring something different,” she explained. “Not just egg and bread and potato. I want to bring something authentic from the Caribbean.”

Polanco’s wide-ranging menu include several of her personal favorites, such as pernil (roast pork) from the Dominican Republic, which consists of slow-roasted pork — moist, tender and seasoned to perfection — served with a homemade chimichurri sauce. Then there’s arroz con pollo from Puerto Rico — a mix of Spanish seasoned rice and chunks of tasty chicken. On Fridays, Polanco serves up a special dish, pastel en hoha — a steamed Puerto Rican “lau lau” made with plantain and taro, stuffed with pork and wrapped in banana leaves.

After a great meal be sure to leave room for coconut flan and enjoy a unique selection of cold drinks including the hard-to-find Mexican tamarind juice and a refreshing hand-made mint lemonade.

Don’t miss the Empanada Lady in Wailuku. Take a journey across the Caribbean and enjoy the tastes of the islands. Having a birthday party, a graduation or an office party? The restaurant can be rented on Saturdays and Sundays and catering is also available.

At A Glance: The Empanada Lady

The Empanada Lady, featuring exquisite flavors of the Caribbean, is located at 2119 W. Vineyard St. in Wailuku, one block up from the large municipal parking lot.

Hours: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed weekends.

Specials: There is a special dish that changes every day of the week. Ranging from a delicious Cuban roasted pork sandwich with swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on a special Cuban-style baguette on Tuesday, to Puerto Rican monfongo, a traditional dish made with fried plantains (tropical bananas), mashed together with garlic, served with a succulent shrimp stew in a Puerto Rican-style tomato sauce on Thursday.

Reservations: For large parties, call 868-4544.