Colombian Comfort Food: Empanadas

March 3, 2010

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Empanada assortment at Macondo
(photo by Steve Dolinsky)

I just love edible little packages. Whether they're golfball-sized har gow (shrimp steamed in rice flour wrappers) for dim sum, starchy pierogi stuffed with potatoes and cheese, or a simple empanada, jammed with beef, chicken, peppers or all of the above. The pleasures of eating with your hands, dipping into indiscriminate sauces and popping into one's mouth never gets old.

I've always thought, at least in Chicago, that Argentina grabbed the lion's share of PR when it came to empanada sales and marketing.‚  I've been hearing about El Nandu in Logan Square for more than a decade (their empanadas are very good), and the baked/fried varieties at Buenos Aires Liquor & Deli on the Northwest Side are hidden gems. Oddly enough, I tried some Chilean empanadas when I was in Toronto recently -- at a place called Jumbo Empandas -- and the shell was actually more crisp, a bit thinner than what I'm used to, and had a beautiful, bright sheen as a result of an egg wash before baking. Nearly every South American country has their own version of the empanada, and in Chicago lately, the Colombians are coming on strong.

Mekato's Colombian Bakery has been one of the best examples for years; their baked goods are unparalleled within the local Colombian community. I was also pleasantly surprised to visit Macondo in Lake View recently. The family behind the Colombian steakhouse Las Tablas has opened this small cafĂ© on North Lincoln, trying to become the epicenter of all things Colombian -- from music and imported coffee, to corn-embedded‚ arepas and of course, a wide swath of fried empanadas. The owners have gone so far as to bring in an empanada master from their home country, and are now offering about a half-dozen varieties, including the traditional beef and potato, as well as mozzarella with guava and a sweet version with arequipe (a Colombian version of dulce de leche) with fresh bananas.

For $2.50, you'll get two small empanadas, and they arrive with some lovely little sauces for dipping and drizzling. The aji casero has a nice, gentle heat to it, but the aguacate (avocado) provides a fattier, luscious counterpoint to the fried treats. Macondo also sells some other Colombian treats, such as ajiaco -- a traditional stew of chicken, potatoes and corn -- as well as those thin, corny discs (arepas) and pasteles, containing guava and cheese -- but just pop in for a pair of empanadas and a bracing cup of free trade, organic coffee, and you'll get a tasty window into the world Juan Valdez inhabits. Incidentally, if you'd like to see how they make their empanadas at Macondo, you can tune in at 11 a.m. today on ABC 7, or just watch it on the ABC 7 website. Am I missing somewhere? Have you had any good, local empanadas lately?


The front counter at Macondo (photo by Steve Dolinsky)