TUCKED AWAY IN SARASOTA COMMONS PLAZA AWAITS some of the finest Puerto Rican food the town has to offer in the family-owned Sofrito Mama’s, currently ranked second among more than 700 area restaurants reviewed on TripAdvisor. The unassuming storefront belies a flavorful virtuosity that keeps the regulars coming back for more—so much so that guests overflow across the threshold and into the outdoor seating. Inside it’s standing room only; a busy kitchen dominates the building proper—a long and narrow shotgun-style construction—pushing the counter to the storefront next to a mounted map of Puerto Rico where staff alternately take orders, cook and chew the fat and swap recipes with customers.

The menu promises “Latin Comfort Food” and owners and chefs Alicia and Jason Bolden deliver with a family-recipe-inspired menu that includes codfish fritters, fried plantains (some sweet, some stuffed) and piping hot empanadas already causing a stir. Made with flour dough, empanadas come in three varieties—picadillo, chicken or spinach and cheese—each with its own Sofrito Mama’s touch.

The picadillo consists of ground beef stewed to perfection in Spanish spices until it melts in the mouth, mixed with potatoes and sealed inside the crust, while the chicken is made from only the dark meat from stewed chicken thighs, accented with a tomato base. Spinach and cheese remains a rare option, particularly for Puerto Rican cuisine, but Bolden says she wanted to adapt to the surrounding demographic. “There are a lot of vegetarians that come in,” says Bolden, “and I want to have something for them.” Made with fresh spinach, fresh garlic and a combination of Parmesan, Romano, mozzarella and provolone cheeses, this empanada can hold its own against any carnivore’s complaint.

The key to any good empanada, above the particulars of beef or chicken or spinach and cheese, is the eponymous sofrito, an aromatic and highly seasoned sauce used as a base in Latin American cuisine. The exact make-up will change from culture to culture and family to family, but that’s where it starts.

Sofrito Mama’s,  935 N Beneva Rd., #617, Sarasota 941-554-8786