Since I can remember, my mom has made empanadas for our family every Sunday. Growing up, a Boca Juniors soccer game was always accompanied by either an empanada de carne or pollo or both. It’s a tradition that has brought my family closer together over the years and one that we hold on to till this day.
So naturally, I just assumed that empanadas were originally from Argentina like us. And if you ask Siri, maybe I wasn’t entirely off. After all, some food and culture sites will tell you that the empanada “first appeared in Argentina in the kitchens of immigrants from northern Spain.” And that the first empanada looked more like a “larger, double-crusted pie cut into slices.”
Still, I know that things are up for debate (so don’t come for me!).
But regardless of where they’re from, empanadas have continued to evolve and make their way all across South America, the U.S., and the world. From Chile to Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, and others have added their special touch. The differences are evident, and you notice them in the way they’re prepared and in the way they look—all delicious and beautiful.
And the great thing about living in Los Angeles is that we have all of them here. Immigrant families like mine have opened up hundreds of food trucks, markets, and restaurants over the years, making it possible for empanadas to become a staple in the city.
So to start the year, I took the time to check out some of these places and their tasty empanadas. I hope you’ll get to know them for yourself.
4354 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90029
If you’re not an empanada connoisseur, then one of the first things you’ll probably notice about the Chilean empanada is its size. The typical empanada de pino (o de carne) is thick, significant, and generously stuffed. Not to mention juicy, and it’s a complete meal all on its own.
Ricardo Flores, who’s been the owner of Rincon Chileno in Melrose since 1973, tells L.A. TACO that at his restaurant, they prepare the filling of the empanadas de pino with beef, onion, salt and pepper, oregano, a little bit of cumin, and garlic. Meanwhile, the dough is made with flour, milk, eggs, butter, and several condiments.
The secret to making them so juicy, he says, comes down to the fat that’s left in the meat and how abundantly they’re filled with onions.
“An empanada de pino with pebre and red wine is the perfect combination for lunch,” Flores said. “A single empanada will satisfy you.”
Since his family immigrated to Los Angeles from Santiago, Chile, in 1972 and opened up the restaurant, Flores said that his goal is to make people in L.A. know the empanada just as well as tacos or pupusas.
“I think the empanada competes with the best taco or the best pupusa, so I would love for it to become just as popular, for everyone to know of this food that comes from all over South America.”
Important to note that pebre is a traditional Chilean sauce made to pour over the empanada’s filling. Flores told me they make it with jalapeños, cilantro, green bell peppers, salt, garlic, olive oil, and onions.
1206 Magnolia Blvd, Burbank, CA 91506
I enjoyed every inch of these empanadas de pollo.
At first glance, you might think the empanadas from World Empanadas are your typical empanadas from Argentina. And in many ways, you’d be right. After all, they’re baked rather than fried, and the repulgue that seals them creates a pattern that makes them look just like them.
But suppose you ask Christopher Hirtz, who opened up World Empanadas with his family in Burbank in 2012. In that case, he’ll tell you that their empanadas have an “Argentinian flair with a Southern California twist.” Hirtz’s dad is from Tres Arroyos in Buenos Aires.
“You have your basic ham and cheese, which you can say is a hot pocket. Or you can say it’s a traditional Argentinian empanada,” Hirtz said. “We also have a biscuit and gravy empanadas, which I’d say are very American.”
And if you ask me, the Mexican influence is also present, especially when it comes to their chile con carne empanada, their very popular Santa Fe chicken empanadas and their spicy potato empanadas.
“We love spice. Our mom’s side is Mexican, and we grew up with our grandfather always having jalapeños in his pocket,” Hirtz said. “So for our spicy potato empanadas, we make this jalapeño salsa that’s very spicy and has no tomatoes, just puro chile, onions, garlic, and lemons.”
World Empanadas also offers vegan empanadas, which Matt Hirtz, the chef, makes with homemade cashew cheese and white mushrooms, all cooked well and added to an empanada dough filled with parsley.
In total, the restaurant offers 18 different kinds of empanadas. Everything from chicken empanadas to bean and cheese empanadas, pepperoni empanadas, and my personal favorite: A Nutella and banana empanadas that will satisfy even the most stubborn sweet tooth.
“When people hear World Empanadas, they think they’re going to find Cuban empanadas, Colombian, and Argentine,” Hirtz said. “But for us, the ‘world’ in our name really speaks to our ability to take a blank canvas and make anything from it.”
211 W Wilson Ave, Glendale, CA 91203
Before visiting Cariaco in Glendale, I’d never had a Venezuelan empanada, and I had only heard of their traditional, slightly sweet arepas. But much to my delight, empanadas are, in fact, one of the more popular foods in Venezuela and very much part of the culture.
Wilkins Salas, one of the owners of Cariaco, who’s also from Caracas, Venezuela, told me that what distinguishes their empanadas from others in South America is all about the ingredients in their dough and how they’re cooked.
“The dough is made with wheat and corn flour combined, maybe a little more corn flour than wheat, which makes them sweet and savory and gives them that typical orange color,” Salas said. “We also fry them, and their size is also pretty unique, and they’re about the size of two to three Argentinian empanadas.”
If you look at their site, you’ll see that they have 14 different kinds of empanadas, everything from their spinach empanada to their carne mechada y queso empanada. They’re all served with guasacaca, an avocado and cilantro sauce, and garlic sauce on the side. And I have to say, the mix of the semi-dulce dough with the more savory shredded meat and cheese found in a lot of them makes for a mouthwatering, delicious bite.
Salas told me that their most popular empanada is the pabellon, a traditional Venezuelan dish that they make in the form of an empanada and prepare with shredded beef, black beans, fried ripe plantains, and cheese. And that the Caripe empanada, which is stuffed with cheddar cheese, ground beef, and plantain, is a close second.
“I think that what has really enriched Venezuelan food is that mix of European, African, and Indigenous influences,” Salas said. “It’s part of our DNA as a people, even within my own family, and has contributed to the rich flavors we now have.”
Cariaco is named after Sucre, Venezuela, where Wilkin’s grandma Carmen Martinez grew up.
847 S Union Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90017
Sabor Colombiano’s empanada de pollo, espinaca y carne (left to right).
After I had a chicken empanada at Sabor Colombiano, Dario Garcia, the restaurant owner, told me he knew right away I wasn’t Colombian.
It wasn’t about the empanada I decided to have or how I looked and spoke. But instead, the fact that I ate it by cutting it in half with a knife first and only then taking a bite. Something that, according to Garcia, a native wouldn’t do.
“A Colombian takes a bite of the bottom tip of the empanada and then starts adding chili to it and eating it from there,” Garcia said. “In Colombia, we say that true love isn’t defined with a kiss or by getting married. Rather, it’s shown by giving your loved one the bottom tip of your empanada.”
Garcia told me that the dough of their famous empanadas de carne is made with cornmeal and the filling is a purée of shredded beef and potatoes. He said they fry them for about four to five minutes, and they come out similar to the ones you find in the city of Cali in el Valle del Cauca.
“In el Valle del Cauca, you’ll find that restaurants offer a variety of chili sauces, all different in how spicy they are, and so do we,” Garcia said. “Because an empanada isn’t an empanada without chili.
He added that Sabor Colombiano also offers una salsa rosada for their empanadas, a pink sauce native to Bogota, the capital of Colombia, which is a mix of mayonnaise and ketchup.
“I have to say that the perfect Colombian combination is a chicken empanada with some chili and rice on the side and an iced coffee,” Garcia said. “And because of the Mexican American influence around us, you’ll find that our chili is more picante than you might expect.”
1225 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90006
Portobanco’s empanada de maduro with coleslaw and pickled onions.
To be honest, I didn’t know an empanada could be so sweet. An Argentinian empanada is a lot of things, but sweet isn’t one of them. And then I had Portobanco’s empanada de maduro, a Nicaraguan delight made with plantains and cheese that just melts in your mouth.
Heberto Portobanco, the owner of Portobanco’s Restaurant, told me that the empanada de maduro is a Nicaragua tradition that is best accompanied by pickled onions, a coleslaw salad, and a good café con leche.
“I think it became popular in Nicaragua because of its rich sweet flavors, how quickly it can be made and how affordable it is in our country,” Portobanco said.
Portobanco added that the secret to getting their empanada just right and ready to eat is ensuring that the riped plantains aren’t overcooked. It’s a matter of timing how long the empanadas will be in the fryer for and making sure the plantains don’t get bitter.
“We’ve found that a lot of Latin American families in Pico-Union where we’re located aren’t aware that Nicaraguans have empanadas,” Portobanco said. “So since we opened in 2018, we’ve enjoyed introducing them to people, showing them that it’s a great snack for a late evening.”