The Hunt for the Best Empanadas in Chile
If I was only going to eat one local food when I was in Chile, it was going to be empanadas.
When planning our trip to Chile, I had a a handful of non-negotiable things that needed to happen: visit the Concha y Toro vineyard, stay at Winebox Hotel in Valparaiso, go stargazing in the Atacama Desert, and eat empanadas.
All of the empanadas.
I was on a gastronomic quest and golden brown, handheld, semicircles of joy were my treasures.
Over my two weeks in the country I devoured 10 empanadas of various types. And one hot dog masquerading as an empanada. More on that later. But before we go any further…
Table of Contents
- What is an empanada?
- Are empanadas from Chile?
- What’s in a traditional Chilean empanada?
- How much do empanadas cost in Chile?
- Where are the best empanadas in Chile?
What is an empanada?
An empanada is a type of baked or fried turnover consisting of pastry and filling. The name comes from the Spanish verb empanar, which literally translates to “enbreaded”, that is, wrapped or coated in bread.
I’m a sucker for anything wrapped in a pastry or breading. Sausage rolls…Cornish pasties…Pizza Pops… so empanadas are right up my alley.
Are empanadas from Chile?
While they’re super popular right across Latin America, empanadas can trace their roots back to the northwest region of Spain, where they were first mentioned in 1520 in a Catalan cookbook. So while they might not have originated in Chile, they’re as Chilean today as carmenere wine or Pablo Neruda.
Though you’ll come across countless places selling empanadas in Chile, it’s not actually the official national dish. That title belongs to curanto, a stew that combines seafood, meat and vegetables. It’s prepared in a hole in the ground, the base of which is lined with stones. The stew is then heated in a bonfire until ready. Sadly, we never had the opportunity to try this.
But we did repeatedly stuff ourselves full of empanadas. Priorities.
What’s in a traditional Chilean empanada?
In Chile, the most traditional empanada filling is called pino, which is a seasoned mixture of ground beef, onions, raisins and black olives and are topped with hard-boiled eggs. Somehow I managed to make it through two weeks and ten empanadas in Chile and without a pino landing on my plate, however Kirk, my travel partner, got one at our first stop so all is not lost. Since I don’t care for olives or raisins I’m not bereft at having missed out, though I feel that for completeness, I should have been a bit more hard core in my meal choices.
It’s just… the cheese was calling. The queso was always calling.
How much do empanadas cost in Chile?
If cheese wasn’t enough of a selling point for you, one of the other great things about empanadas in Chile is that they’re pretty cheap. We found prices for a single empanada ranged from 600 pesos (about $0.78 for day old baked pino) to 2200 pesos (about $2.75 for octopus and cheese). One was enough for a light lunch, two if you have a big appetite.
Where are the best empanadas in Chile?
Now, this is a loaded question. I could live a lifetime in Chile and never sample all of them so the best I can do is tell you about the empanadas we tried and which ones I’d swipe right on again and again. In comparing them, I mainly looked at the pastry shell, the flavour of the fillings, and the filling to pastry ratio.
Los Hornos del Monte, San Bernardo
Napolitana and pino – 8/10
We ended up at this little roadside restaurant purely by accident. We missed an exit on the way to the Concha y Toro winery and while course correcting, ended up on a local road with a few restaurants and since it was lunctime we decided to begin our empanada hunt right then and there at Los Hornos del Monte.
FYI, ‘los hornos’ is the Spanish term for ovens.
One side of the diner had a long counter with a row of brick ovens behind it. This looked promising. We put in our order: one discounted reheated pino from their day old basket and three Napolitana: ham, cheese, tomato.
My first impression when they were delivered to our table was, “Uh oh, I should’ve just ordered one.” They were large. They didn’t really look how I was expecting either, resembling more of a folded trapezoid than the pinched, fried semi-circles I’d seen online. And they were messy. A mixture of grease and tomato juice dripped freely from the bottom every time I took a bite. Maybe I should’ve let them cool a bit more so that the cheese would solid. That being said, they were generous with the cheese, and the dough so thick but not dry. I wish there had been more tomato. The diced deli ham was just ok.
Overall, a good base from which to judge future empanadas.
Delicias Express, Valparaiso
Beef & bacon, shrimp – 7.5/10
Our next empanada stop was lunch in the city of Valparaiso after a morning tour. We asked our tour guide for a recommendation and he pointed us to Delicias Express – a take out shop that advertised 80 kinds of empanadas.
I scanned the single spaced, double sided menu and narrowed down my choice to something with beef. I landed on a beef & bacon while Kirk got a shrimp empanada. FYI, every single one of the 80 types has a cheese base.
Somehow I forgot to get a photograph of our lunch. I found the cheese was less gooey than it had been in San Bernardo, which worked for me. It held together the beef and bacon rather than everything sinking into the bottom third while I ate from one end. Good proportions on the ingredients. Good crispiness to the shell. I’d order it again.
Kirk’s empanada, however, had no structural integrity and completely fell apart on him after a couple of bites. He has yet to forgive it for the mess it made. This is why I always carry wet wipes in my travel purse.
Huentelauquen Empanadas y Queso
Queso – 8/10
I came across this strange cheese oasis while reviewing Kirk’s road trip plan from Valparaiso to La Serena on Google Maps. There seemed to be an odd cluster of at least half a dozen or more empanada shops. I needed to investigate.
Our first stop was what seemed like a very clean, modern, specialized truck stop. You could get only a few things here: jars of Chilean papayas, bottles of Chilean papaya juice, bags of avocados, cheese, and queso empanadas. We ordered a large bottle of juice and two empanadas to eat at one of their outdoor tables.
We both had the same thought after taking that first bite. “Tastes like an old school McDonald’s apple pie, but you know, with cheese instead of apple.” The shell even had the same colour and bubble. For this reason, and the fact that they were generous with the amount of cheese, it became my favourite of the queso versions we tried.
Supermercado Millahue, Huentelauquen
Queso – 6/10
Next up we stopped at a shop inside a supermarket next to a giant faded poster advertising Huentelauquen cheese and papayas. It was like an odd mix of convenience store and fast food joint. We ordered two more queso empanadas.
These ones were just ok. I believe they used the Huentelauquen brand cheese so that part was pretty equal to our first but the shell was lacking. There was nothing about the taste or texture that made it stand out. It was perfectly adequate as a snack but nothing to write home about.
Las Famosas Empanadas de Queso Huentelauquen
Queso – 7.5/10
Before we left Huentelauquen, we made one last stop at a bright yellow building on the other side of the supermarket. The signage outside was so over the top that I had high expectations for this one. We thought we’d try something other than plain cheese but, when we asked, they were out of everything except cheese.
At this point we were so stuffed with cheese and dough that we decided to take them to eat later, hopefully reheating at our hostel that night. Turns out our hostel didn’t have a guest kitchen so we ate them cold…and they were still good. Hard to compare directly to ones fresh out of the oil but they had a decent helping of cheese and a dough that was flaky and not bland.
El Grandioso, Caldera
Chorizo, chicken 9/10
One evening in Caldera, we walked around the streets looking for dinner until we were enticed into a restaurant by the wafting smell of rotisserie chicken. Instead of ordering up a plate of chicken for supper though we each got two empanadas: one chicken, one chorizo. These turned out to be my favourite of the meat empanadas.
The first bite of smoky, roasted chicken combined with gooey cheese, and the crisp pastry shell was enough to elicit an audible, “Mmmmm,” from my lips. Next up, the chorizo empanada was even better, bringing a little bit of heat to the mix. Paired up with bottles of Pap and Bilz, I was thoroughly content with our Chilean dinner.
Supermercado Ketal, San Pedro de Atacama
“Sausage” aka hot dog 2/10
The sign in the tiny store in San Pedro do Atacama advertised pino but they were out so we went with our second choice which sounded promising: sausage, tomato, and cheese. What it really was, was a hot dog. If it had been a good hot dog that would be one thing, but it was mushy, the tomato and cheese scarce, and the dough was dry.
If you find yourself in San Pedro and you’re craving a hot dog, head to the Copec station instead.
Queso de cabra 7.5/10
The last stop on our empanada tour was a small takeout in the town on Machuca en route back from the El Tatio Geysers. They mainly catered to the bus tours but we found it to be a good point to stretch our legs and recover a bit from the washboard roads we’d endured on the way up and now back down.
They pretty much had three things on the menu, goat cheese empanadas (queso de cabra), regular cheese empanadas, and skewers of grilled llama meat. We got one of each. Turns out, llamas are not only cute, but delicious.
I got the goat cheese empanada and savoured it but didn’t find a big taste difference from regular cheese. Since both cheese versions were the same price, I’d happily get it again just to switch things up, but don’t expect big North American goat cheese flavour. The pastry was light, flaky, and delicious. I only wish they’d been more generous with the cheese.
Have you ever been to Chile? What did you think of the empanadas? Where was your favourite?
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