Empanadas are a funny thing. I had eaten my fair share of hand-holdable meat pies and pasties before setting foot on the southern part of this fair continent. So the first time someone explained them to me, my reaction was something like “so they’re essentially mincemeat in a bit of pastry…and that’s a national dish? Is this some kind of joke?”
But of course, it’s impossible to live or even travel in Argentina without resorting to the occasional four-or-five-empanada lunch, or two-or-three-empanada snack (not embracing them would seriously limit your convenience food options), and little by little I’ve developed such an affection for them that I can’t go more than two days without one. I’m a convert.
Let’s go back to the start though. What is an empanada?
Empanar is a verb meaning “to wrap in bread,” so empanada simply means “wrapped in bread.” The typical Argentine empanada is a pocket of dough (made from flour and lard) with a savory filling, usually including meat. They’re small – you can get through most of them in about 3-4 bites – but quite filling. They can be baked (al horno) or fried (frito). While it’s more common to encounter baked ones, which obviously are healthier, the fried ones are damn tasty (and the odd one won’t kill you!).
In terms of flavors, the common ones in Argentina are ground beef, spicy ground beef, ground chicken, ham and cheese, cheese and onion, tuna, creamed corn and spinach. (In Spanish that’s carne, carne picante, pollo, jamón y queso, queso y cebolla, atún, humita and espinaca.)
If you were wondering, empanadas are something that Argentina and many other countries in South America inherited from Spain and Portugal. In those countries an empanada is a larger pie that is cut into individual portions, but in Spain they also have empanadillas, and these are more like the South American version.
Where to get yours
So where should one buy these doughy little treats? Well first of all there are three chain empanada vendors that you might come across: El Noble Repulgue; Gourmet, and Solo Empanadas. Of those Noble is the best, but also the most expensive, and its empanadas are the smallest. Gourmet gets good reviews but not for its service. Solo Empanadas is the worst of the three – though cheap, its empanadas often have too much onion or are just too juicy.
In addition to the chains, there are of course a million and one independent empanada vendors across the city. One that attracts rave reviews is El Sanjuanino, located five minutes’ walk from Recoleta Cemetary at Posadas 1515, so that might be a good one to try if you’re looking for some that are a cut above the ordinary.
Really though, part of the fun of eating empanadas in Buenos Aires is just trying out random, hole-in-the-wall empanada places and hoping to strike it lucky with some really good ones. Or if you’re really lucky, what’s even better is having a friend or family member who’ll make them for you en casa – like all food, they taste best when they’re made with love!