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Chicago Area Latin American Empanadas

Empanadas save the day at Latin American Sandwiches

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Empanadas save the day at Latin American Sandwiches

Mike G | Apr 14, 2003 11:03 PM

A new awning makes all the difference sometimes-- on my jaunt to not eat Polish food and instead eat at Pita Town today, I spotted an awning just north of Irving on Elston that announced:

LATIN AMERICAN SANDWICHES
Home of the Empanada
Mexican Food Espresso Cuban Food Chilean Food

or something like that.

Now, the fact that "Latin American Sandwiches" was in English was probably a counter-indicator of Mexican quality, at least on a street like Elston where you'd expect to see all-Spanish signage, but the Cuban and especially the Chilean message was more interesting. Probably a Cuban or Chilean owner slipping a few of their own items onto a menu dominated by the usual burritos and tortas required to make ends meet. So I grabbed the baby and the toddler and returned there for dinner.

It's a brightly colored, new and clean place (open about 4 months but the awning is spanking new). My guess about the offerings was exactly right-- friendly Chilean owners with a menu that pretty much covers Mexican, Cuban and Chilean bases. I asked about empanadas and other Chilean things, but at first I missed an important clue and when I ordered two cheese empanadas for the boys I was informed "It's deep fried-- okay?" with what looked like a trace of disappointment. I said okay, and a few moments later I had two deep fried empanadas that pretty obviously came from a foodservice supplier of some kind. They were about as Chilean as a Kronos pizza puff.

Myself, I ordered a steak sandwich with "Chilean sauce" (mayo and perhaps some very light seasoning). It was good enough but I'm not going to tell anyone they need to drive a long way for it when Irazu exists and has a more focused and capable hand with the seasoning, or when Taqueria la Oaxaquena is making pretty serious Torta Milanesas a mile away. The most interesting thing was that I'll swear they baked the bread for it themselves-- it was soft and fresh enough to just be a couple of hours out of the oven, and had a sort of homemade texture. (The menu says homemade, but Harry V, I think this is one time when it actually means it.) I doubt their bread would make Jeff B forget Cuban bread from Miami, it was a little like Schlotzky's to be honest, but at least it seemed a sign that they were trying hard, so I was feeling bad that I didn't like the place better.

Then... my 4 year old announced that he had to go to the bathroom. And as we came back I saw a refrigerator case with a bunch of empanadas on display. Which were bigger, less uniform and decidedly more promising looking than the cheese one we had ordered. Now I understood-- I had ordered one of the conventional empanadas, not one of the "Empanadas de Horno," whatever that means. I grabbed the proprietor (we were the only ones there) and grilled him about the stuff in the fridge.

Here is where the Chilean goodies really come from, I learned-- and it appears they are doing at least as much takeout business as dine-in (not that they were doing much of that while we were there). There are beef, chicken and shrimp empanadas, along with a few other goodies, the most interesting being something vaguely like a tamale pie, called Pastel de Choclo, with beef and chicken in it. And then the menu offers a host of other things which they will basically whip up for you on 24 hours' notice:

Chupe Locos, Mariscos o Guatitas
Ceviches
Pastels de Papas
Charquican
Porotos Granados con Bistec
Porotos Burros con Riendas y Longaniza
Cebollas o Aji en Escabeche
Pan Amasado
Godornices con Arroz
Carbonada
Ajiaco
Leche Asada
Tortas De Pina
Pollo Arvejado

Not that I know what even half of those are. Suddenly there's a lot more depth to this place than a few Mexican and Cuban sandwiches and tacos initially suggested. Not that I needed more food, but I ordered a beef empanada. It came quickly enough that it must have been nuked, but it was fine-- a very nice pie-crust-meets-calzone shell containing lightly but pleasantly spiced meat and more surprises than a Cracker Jack box-- one bite revealed a spiced raisin, another a hardboiled egg, even a single black olive hidden inside.

My estimation went way up, and I was glad I would be able to write something very positive about a place that seems worth exploring further-- albeit probably as a source for a catered event rather than dining in.

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