Up until a decade ago, it was next to impossible to find authentic Argentinian-style empanadas in the Santa Barbara area. When Matias Requena and his family moved to Santa Barbara from their coastal hometown of Mar de Plata, Argentina, in 2002, the coastal California environment felt reminiscent of home but the absence of this Argentine staple was certainly present. Even if empanadas were available in the States, they strayed from the Argentine authentic flavors that the Requena family enjoyed eating; they were Americanized, made from corn instead of flour and fried instead of baked.
Acclimating to his new home, Matias Requena spent his first 10 years in Santa Barbara working in the local restaurant scene at establishments such as seafood restaurant Brophy Bros. and the now-closed, high-end Mexican restaurant Cielito.
“I think the combination of having [restaurant] experience myself and wanting to share my culture with guests made me want to bring our cuisine to Santa Barbara,” Requena said.
Yet it was a family road trip in the Patagonia region of Argentina in 2012 that truly solidified Requena’s idea to share authentic Argentine empanadas with the population of Santa Barbara. Requena’s mother, Malena, was living in Argentina at the time and had cooked four dozen chicken empanadas for the family to fuel their cross-country excursion. After subsisting on empanadas for several days, Requena gained more appreciation for the easy, handheld nature of the food. He also didn’t realize how much he missed the taste of his mother’s handmade empanadas and knew others would love them as much as he always had.
Once Malena moved back to Santa Barbara in 2014, the process of establishing Buena Onda, the family’s empanada business, began.
Buena Onda, which translates to “good vibes” in English, is a way of expressing that you get along with someone right away — that you ‘vibe’ with someone’s energy. The phrase was not only a part of Argentine vernacular, but it also embodied the type of environment and community that the Requena family wanted to build.
“To us, the name represents not only people we love but also providing good food with a whole lot of love behind it,” Requena said.
Recipe testing began at home that year in the family’s kitchen while the family waited to find a larger, commercial space in which to make and sell their empanadas. With friends acting as their taste testers, the Requenas perfected the family empanada recipe just in time for a larger kitchen space to become available. In 2015, Buena Onda rented out the kitchen from the now-shuttered, American breakfast and lunch restaurant Goodland Kitchen in Old Town Goleta on Magnolia Ave, allowing their business to finally take off. Once Goodland Kitchen stopped meal service for the day, Buena Onda would take over the space, serving their empanadas and playing lively Argentine music into the evening. The after-hours pop-up only lasted three months, but was an instant success, resulting in outpouring community support for Buena Onda.
The original vision was always to open a restaurant space, but finding such a location in Santa Barbara was difficult and costly. The Requenas rented another kitchen space from a catering company at 724 E. Haley Street to produce empanadas for takeout but purchased a mobile wood-fired oven to use when catering special events like weddings and corporate gatherings. For three years, Buena Onda operated as a catering service until the catering company from which they were leasing offered to sell the Haley Street building to the Requenas in 2018. This allowed the family to further focus on how to curate a cozy restaurant vibe to accommodate their comforting dishes that tasted like home.
Since the beginning, collaborating with other small food and beverage businesses in Santa Barbara has been a helpful tool in growing Buena Onda’s already very enthusiastic customer base. So it felt like a no-brainer when Buena Onda was approached about selling their empanadas at Mosaic Locale on State Street in 2018 alongside other businesses including Draughtsmen Aleworks and Old Town Coffee.
“It was like having roommates in a house,” Requena said about the early days of selling his empanadas at Mosaic Locale alongside so many friends in the same industry.
Customers could pair their empanadas with a cup of coffee or pint of beer from other participating businesses, supporting several local restaurateurs with a single purchase. The cooperative concept was also aimed to revive State Street as the downtown area was facing complaints from residents for feeling sleepy and unexciting. Buena Onda’s station at Mosaic Locale helped get their name out there and drove traffic to their newly established restaurant on Haley Street. While Buena Onda eventually outgrew the Mosaic Locale space, the business still facilitates wholesale orders of empanadas for Draughtsmen Aleworks’ outpost in the mini food hall downtown.
Once Buena Onda began to expand, Requena described updating their recipes as a “team effort” among members of the family and the kitchen staff. Basing their core empanada recipe off of the tried-and-true variation developed by Malena in Argentina, head chef Lupe Donjuan, chef Tomás Baistrocchi and Requena collaborated on the empanada flavors and chimichurri recipe, a dipping sauce made from parsley, garlic, olive oil and various spices that is paired with all empanadas.
Crafting Buena Onda’s signature empanadas is a multi-day process to ensure the business can regularly produce thousands every week. Mondays are dedicated to making the empanada fillings – seasoning the beef, chicken and vegetables that will later be inserted into the pockets of dough – and hand-kneading the dough. Tuesdays are spent feeding the dough into a machine that thins the dough to reach the perfect consistency, cutting the dough into disks, adding the filling to the empanadas and closing the empanadas. After these two days of preparing and assembling the empanadas, they are placed in a fridge and chilled; each batch of empanadas is baked to order, resulting in the ultimate freshness and best flavor.
Buena Onda’s empanada varieties stay true to the flavors of Argentina while also acknowledging other global influences. Requena grew up eating beef empanadas, which he considers to be the most authentic Argentine flavor present in Buena Onda’s empanadas, yet also wanted the business to appeal to the California palate and Italian cuisine, which is widely consumed in Argentina due to the country’s sizable Italian population. These influences result in dishes such as their caprese empanada which is crafted with organic roma tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and olive oil. In an effort to make their menu accessible to those with dietary restrictions and speak to plant-focused, Californian preferences, Buena Onda’s menu also features vegan versions of their signature empanadas made with special vegan dough and fillings such as kale, quinoa and vegan cheese.
As the Buena Onda name spread throughout Santa Barbara, the motivation to do more than just empanadas grew. Input from fellow restaurateur Ramon Velazquez, who owns Corazón Comedor, helped Requena decide to serve something green with their empanadas which manifested itself through serving salads, potatoes and grilled vegetable platters at the restaurant. In their catering days, Buena Onda would typically feature specials at such events alongside their baked empanadas. One of these specialties included Argentine asado, or barbecued meat, and milanesas, breaded steak, which is now served at the restaurant in a sandwich or on a plate with fries and salad. Frequently, Requena travels back home to Argentina both to connect with his roots and gain recipe inspiration for Buena Onda’s latest menu items.
The pandemic was a challenging time for Buena Onda, especially since the restaurant had only been operating for two years. With the announcement of the shelter-in-place order, Matias quickly brainstormed ways to keep the business afloat and came up with the idea of offering no-contact deliveries throughout the Santa Barbara area of frozen empanadas that customers could bake in their ovens at home. COVID-19 also sparked several unexpected partnerships with local bars. In order for bars and clubs to continue operating during the pandemic, Santa Barbara County required such establishments to serve food. Cocktail bars, The Good Lion and EOS Lounge, started to place wholesale orders from Buena Onda during this time, which in turn helped Buena Onda’s empanadas reach a wider audience.
“It really made us pivot in a very fortunate way,” Requena said regarding how the pandemic opened up new opportunities for wholesale distribution that Buena Onda has continued since the pandemic.
In post-pandemic times, the Requenas were eager to use their restaurant space as a venue for events to share Argentine music and culture. Since the opening of their restaurant in 2018, Buena Onda has hosted various performances by both Latin and non-Latin musicians for patrons to enjoy. After a year devoid of large gatherings, Buena Onda made an effort to host community events and help members of the community reconnect with each other. The restaurant’s outdoor patio is frequently used as a dance floor for dance nights in collaboration with Nomad Tango, a nonprofit that organizes Argentine tango nights.
Requena’s dream since the restaurant opened was to host his own World Cup watch party for the Argentinian and extended community. When the Argentina men’s soccer team entered the World Cup final, Requena organized a series of watch parties on the patio to cheer on his home team among other devoted fans. The event series was incredibly successful, with over 100 people gathered around a single flat-screen to watch every game, decked out in their blue and white striped jerseys. Buena Onda’s patio on that Sunday in December at 6 a.m. felt like being transported to an actual stadium with a lively celebration complete with confetti, drums, drinks and waving flags that followed Argentina’s victory.
Requena doesn’t deny the immense challenges of operating a restaurant, especially one that tapped into the niche of Argentine cuisine, with which Santa Barbara residents were less familiar. But witnessing the public participate in celebrations of Argentine culture through tango nights, soccer match screenings and, of course, dining on authentic Argentine fare made all of the past setbacks worth overcoming.
“Building a family here within the business and all the people you meet, and all the people you feed is something great that came out of all of this,” Requena said.
A version of this article appeared on p. 9 of the October 12, 2023 version of the Daily Nexus.