At its most basic, an empanada consists of dough that’s filled and then baked or fried. But that’s a pretty loose definition that could describe anything from an American hand pie or Indian samosa to a Cornish pasty. But when we say the word “empanada” we are almost always referring to the ubiquitous snack from Latin America.
The Latin-American empanadas we know today originated in Northern Spain where they began as larger double-crusted pies. But as the Spanish began to conquer (and influence) the New World, the dish was adapted and customized over time.
Today, empanadas are smaller, hand-held snacks. But they vary greatly from place to place. They can be fried or baked. Some are made with a wheat and fat-based pastry-style crust. Others are made with corn flour. Some are even made with yucca or plantains. And the fillings? They are as variable as the people who create them.
In fact, there are so many variations on dough and fillings that it could well take you a lifetime to try all the variations of empanadas from Latin America alone.
But one thing unites them all: empanadas are delicious.
Here are a few types of empanadas you can find in Milwaukee, plus places to enjoy them.
1. Argentinian empanadas
The Argentinian empanada has numerous variations. But most are made with a wheat and fat based dough, and most are baked rather than fried (though there are always exceptions). As for fillings, beef is common, as Argentina is known for its cattle. But, variations abound.
Antigua Latin Inspired Kitchen
6207 W. National Ave, West Allis, (414) 321-5775
Antigua serves a few variations of empanadas, including fillings like Mexican-inspired chicken poblano; saffron-scented root vegetables and Colombian-inspired pork and cheese. But you can also find the Yolanda Empanada, named for Yolanda Costanini, a native of Argentina who shared her recipe with them. It’s filled with beef, onions, peppers, olives, egg whites and raisins and served alongside a chimichurri basil sauce. You can also watch for a range of offerings from their food truck, Lola's Empanadas during the summer months!
401 E. Erie St., (414) 930-9088
Chef Ana Docta was raised in Argentina. At Cavas, she serves her mother’s recipe for deep fried empanadas filled with ground beef, caramelized sugar, onions, cumin, hard boiled eggs, raisins and olives as well as empanadas de cerdo filled with seasoned pork, caramelized onions and goat cheese. Both are served with her father’s recipe for chimichurri sauce.
1300 E. Brady St., (414) 885-1866
The empanadas at La Masa were inspired by those served in Argentina, which owner Megan Todd enjoyed while studying there. These baked empanadas sport countless fillings from Argentinian beef and Jamon and cheese to Thai chicken, spinach and cheese and more. Pay attention to their specials, which feature fillings as varied as soy chorizo, ropa vieja and corned beef. Dessert empanadas are also available in flavors like Nutella banana and cookie dough.
2. Caribbean empanadas
Caribbean empanadas are also made with a wheat-based pastry dough which can be either baked or fried. The fillings vary considerably depending on where they are being served.
For example, in Jamaica, the pastries are called Jamaican patties and are In Cuba, you’ll find baked or fried empanadas filled with a picadillo-style mix of ground beef, onion, almonds and olives. Meanwhile, empanadas in Caribbean locales like Puerto Rico tend to be called empanadillas or pastelillos, largely to avoid confusion since the word “empanada” is actually used to describe things that are breaded and fried.
728 N. Milwaukee St., (414) 225-1760
7973 S. Main St., Oak Creek, (414) 574-5260
At this longtime Cuban restaurant, you’ll find empanadas filled with ground beef and cheese; spinach and cheese; chicken with raisins and olives or shrimp with cream cheese, red peppers and cilantro.
2258 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., (414) 988-8030
At Sabor Tropical, you’ll find substantial Puerto Rican inspired empanadillas filled with Cuban-inspired picadillo, Mexican-style chicken or Puerto Rican creole shrimp and served with Caribbean aioli or chimichurri sauce.
3. Colombian empanadas
In Colombia, a corn-based crust forms the base for the empanada, which is most often filled with ground beef potatoes and onions. They are often served with aji, a Colombian salsa.
125 E. National Ave., (414) 389-0125
At La Merenda, Columbian empanadas are filled with house-smoked grass-fed organic beef, Clock Shadow Creamery queso menonita and papas chorreadas (Colombian potatoes). They are served with traditional aji.
You’ll also find a gluten-free vegetarian version of the Columbian snack, which is deep-fried and filled with Clock Shadow Creamery quark (a creamy European cheese), River Valley Ranch mushrooms and sweet corn and served with traditional aji.
4. Peruvian empanadas
In Peru, empanadas are made with a flakey, wheat based dough that can be either baked or fried. While they can serve as a vehicle for the flavors in almost any savory Peruvian dish, traditional fillings include beef, onions, olives, hard-boiled egg and raisins as well as a signature dusting of powdered sugar.
3801 W. Vliet St., (414) 239-8388
Crossroads Collective, 2238 N. Farwell Ave.
Zocalo Food Park, 636 S. 6th St.
Triciclo Peru serves up Peruvian empanadas which are baked, rather than fried. Guests can choose from super traditional fillings like steak, raisins, olives and hard-boiled egg (dusted with powdered sugar) to fillings like Aji de gallina (chicken, yellow pepper, parmesan) and playful Americanized fillings like corn and cheese. Enjoy them traditionally with a squeeze of lime and one of their flavorful sauces!
Gluten-free empanadas are also available, as are frozen empanadas which can be reheated at home. Those are sold through their PachaMama brand and can be ordered online.
5. Salvadoran pasteles
In El Salvador, deep fried empanadas are made with a flaky corn-based dough that’s often colored with annatto seeds, giving them a rusty red tone. They are typically filled with chicken, pulled beef or vegetables and served with curtido, a traditional Salvadoran cabbage slaw.
2316 S. 6th St., (414) 645-1768
Don’t miss the pupusas at this South Side gem where Salvadoran comfort foods are served in spades. That includes pasteles de pollo, mid-sized Salvadoran empanadas filled with a flavorful mix of ultra tender chicken and vegetables. They’re delicious eaten with the accompanying curtido and a squeeze of lime.
6. Spanish empanadillas
You can’t mention the empanada without going back to its place of origin. Spanish empanadillas are more common than the Galician pies from which they originated. But they carry big flavor thanks to varied fillings like tuna and sofrito; slow cooked beef with olives and eggs; potatoes and greens or pork and saffron.
MOVIDA at Hotel Madrid
600 S. Sixth St., (414) 488-9146
At Hotel Madrid, you’ll always find at least one creatively filled empanadilla on the menu. Currently it’s a vegetarian pastry filled with carrots, caramelized onions and roasted tomatoes seasoned with cumin and Spanish paprika and served with lemon aioli.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.