WASHINGTON – Julia Hohman still blushes when she remembers the day she found out she was semi-famous.
A friend had just introduced her to a woman at her granddaughter's school. “This is Julia,” the friend said. “The Julia of Julia's Empanadas.”
She exclaimed again and again about how honored she was to meet the real Julia. She even dug around her purse for a pen so she could get her autograph.
“They're just empanadas,” Hohman,56,said in Spanish about the episode,covering her mouth as she giggled. “But it still makes me laugh.”
Hohman's fame stems from her four small deli-type restaurants that sell empanadas – Chilean pastries stuffed with meats,vegetables or fruits – besides a more standard fare of soup,salad and juice. The restaurants also make special-order cocktail empanadas for parties.
Julia's Empanadas has been included in restaurant picks in the Washingtonian magazine,the Washington Times and the Washington Post.
The four stores sell 800 to 1,200 empanadas each day. There are seven different combination empanadas every day – with a new vegetarian option every week. The top sellers are the Chilean (beef,raisins,hard boiled eggs and onion),Jamaican (curried beef,potatoes and onion) and chorizo empanadas.
One customer,Vangalis Razo,25,of Arlington,Va.,said she especially likes the chorizo empanada because it has a different,meatier flavor than the chorizo she's eaten before.
Another customer,Peter Pace,38,who owns a Washington bar,can't pick a favorite.
“I like them all,” he said. Pace can't remember when he first tried of one of Julia's Empanadas. “They don't have much like this in Washington.”
Pace said he eats at Julia's at least once a week mainly because of the Latino atmosphere. He likes to practice his Spanish. Most of Julia's employees are Latinos.
Hohman,a Chilean native,opened the first store nearly 10 years ago with her husband,William. He runs the business side of the things,she the kitchen.
It makes sense to Hohman,who has been involved in the culinary arts since she was a girl growing up in Santiago. She often cooked for her sister,brother and mother,trying out new recipes she found in magazines.
Her father died when she was 9 and her mother died six years later.
Soon after,Hohman moved to Washington by herself and found work at several hotels as a chef. She met her future husband on a blind date. After they married,they opened a full-service restaurant called Spectrum. Hohman and her husband later sold the business because it was too much work.
The operations at Julia's are a lot different than they were in the mid-‘90s. Hohman no longer makes the dough by hand with one helper. Now,most of the process is automated,and Julia's employs 15 workers. Her daughter and son-in-law also work in the business.
Francesco Cordone manages the store on Vermont Avenue in the city's busy K Street business corridor. He has worked for Hohman for six years.
Maybe his boss works too hard,he said. She goes into work seven mornings a week to help with production at the store in Washington's newly hot 14th and U Street neighborhood.
The empanadas are made there every morning and delivered to the other three stores,where they're baked.
On a recent Friday afternoon as Cordone was cleaning up,only one customer – Rosario Garcia,22,a Washington music promoter – was left in the store.
“Just tell me when to get out,” she called out to Cordone in Spanish. He shook his head and told her to take her time.
Garcia was eating the week's vegetarian option – a lentil,celery and onion empanada. It was her second time in the restaurant.
“I'm vegetarian,so it's hard to find vegetarian food sometimes,” Garcia said.