Chicago is having an empanada moment. The classic grab-and-go turnovers from Central and South America are suddenly everywhere—popping up not only as appetizers but also as the main event. Most empanadas are fried; fillings range from simple meat, cheese, or vegetables to tons of savory concoctions and desserty stuff. We tried them all and found particular pleasure lurking, warmly, within the following crusts.
PLACE 5411 EMPANADAS
ON THE MENU Five varieties, $2 each; minimum order 24
FAVES Ham and cheese, spinach and cheese, sweet onions
THE SCENE Your place (catering and delivery only)
EXTRA CREDIT Baked, not fried—more like large, fancy-pants hors d’oeuvres than fast food—each in a distinctive shape so you can tell them apart.
PLACE CHILAM BALAM
3023 N. Broadway; 773-296-6901
ON THE MENU Two varieties: one savory, $7.95 for two; one sweet, $6.25 for three
FAVES Mushroom (braised mushrooms in pipian verde, two cheeses, epazote, roasted green chiles); PBJ (filled with crunchy peanut butter, dusted with cinnamon sugar, and served with black fig and Oaxacan chocolate dipping sauces)
THE SCENE Near-deafening subterranean full-service restaurant with menu of inventive and enjoyable Mexican small plates
EXTRA CREDIT This fun spot is BYO.
PLACE EL ÑANDÚ
2731 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773-278-0900
ON THE MENU Eight varieties, $2.50 each
FAVES Criolla (beef, red sweet peppers, onions, golden raisins, hard-boiled egg, spices), maiz (corn, green onions, red sweet peppers, hard-boiled egg, cheese, herbs)
THE SCENE Casual full-service restaurant with meatcentric menu, including tasty and tender entraña skirt steak ($19.95)
EXTRA CREDIT Names are stamped on each crust—in vegetable dye—to ID varieties.
PLACE LITO’S EMPANADAS
2566 N. Clark St.; 773-857-1337
ON THE MENU Ten varieties, $2.09 to $2.49 each
FAVES Champion chicken (chicken, cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, onions), beef (ground beef, olives, raisins, potatoes, tomatoes, onions), choco-banana (Nutella, banana)
THE SCENE Bare-bones: takeout, delivery, or five window seats
EXTRA CREDIT All Lito’s serves is empanadas, and lots of them. Love the house-made hot sauce (green chiles, onion, cilantro).
PLACE MACONDO COLOMBIAN COFFEE AND EMPANADAS
2965 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-698-6867
ON THE MENU Nine varieties plus specials, $2.49 for two
FAVES Queso chipotle (mozzarella with spicy sauce), queso con bocadillo (mozzarella with guava paste), arequipe con banana (dulce de leche with banana)
THE SCENE Upbeat, informal, laptop-friendly hangout
EXTRA CREDIT Really good coffee; gluten-free empanadas; early hours (opens at 8 a.m. daily).
PLACE TASTE OF BRASIL
906 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park; 708-383-3550
ON THE MENU Three empanadas, $1.80 each; pie-shaped empadinhas, $1.68 each
FAVES Beef empanada (best eaten fresh from the fryer), heart of palm empadinha; both are snack-size
THE SCENE Tiny, simple-but-sophisticated coffeehouse
EXTRA CREDIT Terrific fresh lemon/limeade; plum cake and other bakery sweets, several of which involve coconut
Photograph: Anna Knott