Empanadas originated in Spain and Portugal, but we most associate the handheld snack with the Americas. When colonists sailed to Latin America, the empanada came along, and countries from Mexico to Argentina have put their own spins on the pastry ever since, with different types of dough, fillings, and sauces.
To taste a range of empanada styles, save yourself the airfare and hop in the car instead: Chicago’s unofficial Empanada Trail is a loop from Irving Park to Bucktown, off which you’ll find seven different kinds of empanadas. With no more than a 10-minute drive to the next stop, you can easily try them all in a single afternoon.
Stop 1: D’Candela Restaurant (Peruvian)
Chicago’s Peruvian food scene may not be as robust as that of other U.S. cities, but we’re kicking off the tour at this family-run storefront, which holds its own with the best of them. You may have been here for pollo a la brasa (Peruvian rotisserie chicken) or arroz de chaufa (Peruvian fried rice), but today we’re here for empanadas. Peru’s traditional filling consists of ground beef, onions, olives, hard-boiled eggs, and raisins, and D’Candela also tucks in some highly seasoned diced steak. Fried to order, the empanadas are served with a delightful pair of hot and mild ají sauces. 3449 W. Irving Park Rd., Irving Park
Stop 2: J&J Mini Store and Restaurant (Ecuadorian)
Our next stop is this tiny grocery store, which the Gonzales family opened a decade ago to serve Chicago’s surging Ecuadorian population. Five years ago, they added a restaurant component in back that’s open Thursday to Sunday. Made from scratch each Wednesday, J&J’s empanadas come stuffed with salty melted cheese and, if requested, sprinkled with a little bit of sugar fresh out of the fryer. Sip a morocho — made from morocho corn, milk, cinnamon, sugar, and raisins — or try an Ecuadorian-style horchata, which is tea-like and pink in color. Make sure to ask for their housemade red pepper ají sauce on the side — it’s one of the city’s best condiments. 3343 N. Pulaski Rd., Avondale
Stop 3: Buenos Aires Liquors & Deli (Argentinian)
Ramón Mario Gimenez opened his Buenos Aires–style deli in 1994 after moving to Chicago to be closer to his in-laws. Argentinian wines are the focal point, but there’s also a counter where you can preorder sandwiches de miga and empanadas. The flour-based empanadas are available fresh or frozen in five varieties, including the traditional ground beef and spinach. Both come with housemade chimichurri. 3100 N. Cicero Ave., Belmont Cragin
Stop 4: Golden Tuzo Pastes y Empanadas (Mexican)
Next up, head south to Diversey to one of the city’s best kept secrets. David Martinez, who opened Golden Tuzo in 2015, is from Hidalgo, a city’s whose claim to culinary fame is the paste, essentially a style of empanada. Brought to Hidalgo by Cornish miners who ate them for lunch down in the mines, the Cornish pasty eventually transformed into the Mexican paste, Golden Tuzo’s specialty. These are different from most empanadas in that they’re baked with raw ingredients inside. Golden Tuzo serves versions with savory fillings, like chicken mole sprinkled with sesame seeds, or sweet options, like pineapple and guava paste. 5648 W. Diversey Ave., Belmont Cragin
Stop 5: Rica Arepa (Venezuelan)
Escaping political unrest, a new wave of Venezuelan immigrants and refugees have flocked to Chicago in the last few years, with many opening restaurants. One is our next stop, Rica Arepa, from husband-and-wife team Maria Uzcategui and Kharim Rincon, who recently moved the restaurant into larger digs next door. Venezuelans make empanadas with corn dough instead of flour, and the empanadas at Rica Arepa take the cake for biggest in the city. Made in the style of those from the owners’ home, La Isla de Margarita, they’re stuffed with traditional arepa fillings like black beans and queso paisa, then fried until golden. They’re crispy outside and crumbly like cornbread inside; bite gently, lest the hot deliciousness within explode. 4253 W. Armitage Ave., Hermosa
Stop 6: ArePa George (Colombian)
We’re off to Humboldt Park for our next stop, where Juan Betancourt and his family serve Colombian-style arepas. They’re great, but it’s the empanadas (and milkshakes) that keep me coming me back. Colombian empanadas are very traditional across the country — they tend to be smaller in size and filled with shredded beef or chicken, and they’re almost exclusively made with yellow corn dough. Typically, they’re served grab-and-go, but what sets ArePa George’s empanadas apart is that they’re fried fresh to order, which means the beef inside is still warm and juicy. Cool them down with a dunk in the housemade green Colombian ají or pink salsa rosada. Good luck eating just one. 1552 N. Kedzie Ave., Humboldt Park
Stop 7: Brasil Legal Cafe (Brazilian)
Like other countries on this list, Brazil has tons of regional empanada varieties. Its most popular empanada by far is the wonton-like pastel, whose history doesn’t start with Spain or Portugal — the variant was introduced by Chinese and Japanese immigrants to Brazil in the 20th century. We end our tour at Brasil Legal, which is part-restaurant, part-grocery store. There, you’ll find Brazilian favorites, including the pastel, which they make with white flour and a splash of cachaça. Try one with spiced ground beef or melted mozzarella. 2161 N. Western Ave., Bucktown