Baseball and empanadas: Diamondbacks’ coach follows his passions with Yanikeke

Nick Piecoro
Arizona Republic

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When Hatuey Mendoza was first experimenting with empanada recipes for a possible food truck concept, his brother gave him an honest review. No, he said, not good enough. It led him to call in a consultant: his mom.

The end result has been on display every day at Salt River Fields during the Cactus League, in a stand located near the left-field foul pole. Judging by the lines — and the repeat customers — spring training fans are being let in on a secret that folks with the Diamondbacks have known for a few years.

“I don’t even really like empanadas,” Diamondbacks farm director Josh Barfield said, “but his are so good.”

Mendoza, 45, is a longtime member of the Diamondbacks organization. He is a former minor-league pitcher and a current coach in their system. He also is the owner of Yanikeke, a family-run operation that began as a food truck and has expanded with locations at Salt River Fields and Chase Field.

The name “Yanikeke” is a play on words stemming from one version of the history of empanadas in Mendoza’s home country, the Dominican Republic. The story goes that johnnycakes arrived in the Dominican along with the sugarcane industry.

“But they were made with corn and it was a little bit more expensive to make it,” Mendoza said. “So they started to make it with flour. And because they couldn’t pronounce (johnnycake) right, it became ‘yaniqueque.’ That’s the story that we like to believe.”

In 1996, Mendoza signed with the Diamondbacks as a teen-aged pitcher. He spent parts of five seasons in the organization, advancing as far as Double-A. He bounced around for a few years after that, pitching for two different organizations and two independent league teams before returning to the Diamondbacks in a front office capacity.

All the while, he had more in his heart than just baseball.

“I have two passions,” Mendoza said. “Baseball, of course. And cooking.”

When he decided he wanted to pursue a food truck, Mendoza turned to his father, Antonio, a turbine mechanic and a jack-of-all-trades handyman, for help building it. Once the truck was ready, Mendoza had to get the food right. He knew just who to call.

“We flew my mom (Beatriz) in," Mendoza said, "and she helped us refine the recipes."

Among Beatriz's biggest contributions: adding "secret ingredients" to the dough recipe, Mendoza said. Empanadas often are filled with meat, cheese and vegetables. At Yanikeke, their empanadas consist entirely of meat.

“It’s quality over everything,” Mendoza said. “The flavor — that’s what you’re going to get over here. I think that it will touch every place in your palate.”

On a recent afternoon, the stand was populated by members of the Mendoza family. Mendoza's niece, Winivier, was at the register while his brother, Huascar, and nephew, Oliver, prepared the food. They keep the operation running while Mendoza is working with young players during the afternoons at the minor-league complex at Salt River Fields.

The truck was set up near the minor-league clubhouses when Yanikeke got off the ground in earnest in 2020, serving as one of the facility’s de facto kitchens at a time when COVID protocols were strict. It did not just fill stomachs, it also comforted the spirits of many of the Diamondbacks’ young players from Latin America.

“I think there are certain tastes and smells that remind you of home,” Barfield said. “It’s hard for a lot of us who grew up here in the States to appreciate how difficult it is to pick up and leave and be away from your family in another country, another culture. I do think when a lot of those guys smell that, taste that, it helps bring them back home a little bit.”

Diamondbacks catcher Jose Herrera said he convinced Mendoza one day last year to bring empanadas into the home clubhouse at Chase Field. They were a hit, Herrera said, even for his American teammates, some of whom had never tried authentic Dominican food.

“The guys all loved it,” he said.

From left, Winivier, Huascar, Hatuey, and Oliver Mendoza pose for a portrait inside the Yanikeke empanadas booth during a game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies at Salt River Fields on Sunday, March 12, 2023, in Scottsdale.

Yanikeke catered Barfield’s daughter’s birthday party, and it was so well received that the gig led others to book the truck for their events. Similarly, Mendoza said fans at Salt River have been returning to the stand for helping after helping.

“People come back two, three times a day, it blows my mind,” Mendoza said. “You come back once, that’s great. But you come back three times on the same day? It’s crazy.”

To that end, Mendoza sees an opportunity. He says empanadas can be found on nearly every corner in inner cities in the Dominican and are as ubiquitous there at baseball games as hot dogs are here. He hopes to change that — on a large scale.

“We want to be a staple in baseball, where we can be in every stadium, just like a hot dog,” he said.

He hopes success at Chase Field, where Yanikeke empanadas are featured at the “Taste of Chase” stand, can serve as a springboard to more locations.

But, he said, the business will not come at the expense of baseball. Mendoza is preparing to spend another season as the pitching coach for the Diamondbacks’ rookie-level Arizona Complex League team. He wouldn’t trade it for all the empanadas in the world.

“Never,” Mendoza said. “Baseball is going to be in my heart all the time. I’ll be involved in baseball until they kick me out. Whatever happens, baseball always will be in my heart and until the day I close my eyes I want to be involved in that.”