Almost every country has them. They’re just a pastry that’s folded in half with a filling inside.
In India they’re called samosas. In Italy, they’re calzones. In Scotland, bridies. In Bolivia, saltenas. In the Dominion Republic, pastelitos. In Greece, spanokapita. In Jamaica, patties. In Portugal, empadas. And in the Philippines, Spain, Argentina and Mexico, they’re empanadas.
Argentinians argue that they were the new world originators of empanadas but Don Day has found no historical documentation of empanadas in any early cookbooks from Argentina or Mexico. That being said, I will agree that, in central Mexico, the place where one can almost always be guaranteed to find them is in Argentinean restaurants.
In Argentina, empanadas are mostly eaten as dinner appetizers and are most often filled with meat or cheese. In Mexico, you’ll most often see them at breakfast or as an after lunch or dinner dessert. Sweet potatoes, pumpkin and bananas are common fillings. The Mexican state of Pueblo is a little different; there, empanadas are more like the Argentinean style and stuffed with chicken or cheese and eaten at dinner. The state of Chiapas is different again and it is there that they make the empanadas that Don Day can’t get enough of.
There are two parts to an empanada, the inside and the outside. It’s easy to find an empanada with a good inside or filling. It’s not so easy to find an empanada with a good outside or pastry. It’s almost impossible to find an empanada with a good inside and a good outside. But your best bet is in Chiapas. A Chiapas empanada is reminscent of a dish from my youth, the Cornish pastie. It’s said that when miners were brought from the southwest of England to work in the mines of Chiapas, they brought the recipe with them. The fillings have adapted to Mexican cuisine but the puff pastry is just like the original. In fact, you’ll even hear them called pasties.
So why am I teasing you with tales of Chiapas empanadas when you probably live hundreds of miles away from there in central Mexico or possibly thousands of miles away in some other country. Well, another country I can’t do much about, but if you live in San Miguel de Allende, I can definitely help satisfy your craving.
You probably think I’m going to tell you about a well known San Miguel de Allende restaurant that has a reputation for empanadas. Restaurants like El Tomate and bakeries like San Sebastian and El Buen Vida all have good, well respected empanadas. La Virundela, another San Miguel restaurant has extremely good empanadas (those are the ones in the photo). All of them though are Argentinean style with pastry that tends to be heavier, doughier. None of them make them in the Mexican Chiapas tradition. But there is a place in San Miguel, pretty much smack in the middle of San Miguel, that does make them and, sad to say, not too many people know about it.
It’s called Empanadas d Loreto. Now I know that the town of Loreto is in the Baja not Chiapas, so I suspect the name has more to do with the virgin that’s famous in Christianity and is considered historically important in San Miguel de Allende. Or it just may be because it’s very close to a street called Calle Loreto. Anyway a conversation with the woman who serves me with my empanadas there did not seem to indicate any relationship between the name and the origin of the style of Chiapas.
An empanada d Loreto is bigger than most empanadas. For Canadians, it’s about the same size as a Lune Moon, that chocolate or vanilla sponge cake with a creamy filling and no expiry date found almost exclusively in vending machines that, with a cola, was a subsistence diet for many struggling students. For non-Canadians, think of a Hostess Twinkie, in a half moon shape, seven inches in diameter.
I’ve had some good phyllos (or filos) and croissants in my time, but I’ll put the flaky crust on an empanada d Loreto up against any of them, any time. And every single time I’ve had them, they’ve been cooked perfectly which is not always the case with puff pastry. They’ve got this big, fancy, very sophisticated oven at the back of Empanadas d Loreto that probably should get some of that credit.
Empanadas d Loreto is not a restaurant, just a take-out joint, but it has seating for about 100. It’s on benches, walls and steps that are in the Plaza de la Soledad, San Miguel’s second most popular place to hang out, right out front of the shop.
Today, I sat there as kids used the bench next to me as goalposts for their game of soccer. I had my favorite empanada d Loreto. With the name ham and cheese, it sounds the most boring but it is an awesome experience. The empanada is held in your hands in a paper bag and, as you bite, each of the flavors sneaks up on you. First comes the flaky, buttery crust; then the gooey cheese, then the meaty ham, then, wooooohhh, a wonderful hit of jalapenos. After the filling is gone, I would be afraid to let go of the remaining crust as it may not fall to the ground, its lightness might carry it on the breeze like a helium balloon.
In addition to Jamon y queso (ham and cheese), other savory flavors at Empanadas d Loreto include picadillo (ground beef) mole (lots of tastes of nuts, fruit and chiles in their version), atun (tuna), tinga de pollo (chicken in chipotle sauce which is Don Day’s Wife’s favorite), chorizo (sausage), pastor (pork with pineapple), rajas con queso (poblano peppers and cheese that is another of Don Day’s favorites), carnes de frias (deep fried beef) and Hawaiiana (which I’ve never tried and don’t know what’s inside and don’t really care to know).
In addition to savory, there are also sweet empanadas at Empanadas d Loreto. I’ve only ever tried one as it’s pretty hard to handle a sweetie after two savories. For some reason the pastry was quite a bit heavier on my strawberry (fresa) empanada; the taste was almost identical to a jelly doughnut which is OK, I guess, if you like jelly donuts. Other flavors include coconut, chocolate, blackberry and apple. I’ll stick to the savories, thanks, but I may be in the minority based on what other people have been buying when I’ve been there.
I mentioned that I generally eat two of Loreto‘s empanadas if I’m making a meal out of them. Normal people only need one for lunch and one of the easiest things to stomach is the price. They’re 14 pesos (not much more than $1) each. Despite the fact that the price is up 2 pesos from last year, Don Day still considers this one of San Miguel’s best bargains. There may be a food stand or two in San Miguel de Allende that can give you a meal this good for that price. But not with Chiapas style empanadas.
Empanadas d Loreto is located at #12 Plaza de la Soledad in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It is open from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, every day but Sunday.