Argentina Part Two - Empanada Tour

Part two of the Argentina trip involved Chip, my old grad school buddy, and I peeling off from the rest of the group as they headed home.  Chip and I spent the next week travelling around northwest Argentina with a vague plan to see some country, sample the wines of this region, and of course, eat more great Argentine food (why stop now?). 

I love the cuisine of Argentina.  Of course the beef, but also the lamb and the cabrito, the chimichurri and mayonesa de apio (celery-mayonnaise dip), and the chorizo. And of course the wines!  But one of the things I love most about Argentine cuisine is the empanadas.  The ultimate in portability, convenience, and comfort.   Francis Mallman, Argentina’s most famous chef and restauranteur, had this to say about “the glorious empanada,” in his book Seven Fires: “If I  had to pick one food that is the most typical of Argentina, it would be the crispy fried or baked turnover known as the empanada.”

Chip and I seated at El Patio de Empanadas in Salta. This place had a decidedly local flavor, but was recommended by Ricardo, the owner of the B&B we stayed at.

Chip and I seated at El Patio de Empanadas in Salta. This place had a decidedly local flavor, but was recommended by Ricardo, the owner of the B&B we stayed at.

 Which brings me to our quest to discover the best empanadas in Argentina.  Not as crazy as it may sound given that there is an official Ruta de Empanada (empanada trail) in this region.   Argentinians will argue about many things from futbol to wine, but when it comes to empanadas, most will agree that the best in the country come from the northwestern region around Salta and Tucuman.  Chip and I were headed to the right place and felt we were up to the task.

Our plan, such as it was, involved starting in Salta and then hiring a car and driver to tour the nearby wine country surrounding Cafayate.  But before I get ahead of myself, a little background for those of you who have somehow gotten this far in life without knowing what empanadas are.  They are small, folded and filled savory pastries common throughout Argentina.  They can be filled with a wide variety of things but meat (read beef), chicken, cheese, ham and cheese, and corn are probably the most common.  They may be baked (al horno) or fried (frito).  They may be served solo or with side of salsa or  lime wedges as an accompaniment. 

Over the course of a week, Chip and I made it our business to seek out and sample empanadas wherever we went.  Since we spent more time in Salta than anywhere else, we were able to try empanadas from several restaurants recommended by the folks we queried on the subject.  We also decided that, given the variety of fillings available, we’d limit our ‘study” to beef, chicken, and cheese fillings.  Which is not to say that we didn’t try the llama empanadas - we just didn’t include them in our survey. 

The best meat filling was beef “cut with a knife.”

The best meat filling was beef “cut with a knife.”

So what did we find out?  For starters we found out that most of the places we visited favored baking rather than frying.  A twist on this trend is that it seemed the cheese empanadas were generally fried even when the others at the same restaurant were baked.  A key thing we learned is that accompanying condiments vary by region.  In Salta, empanadas are typically served with a side of a tomato based salsa  but that salsa varied from a smooth, slightly spicy sauce to a chunky tomato salsa with plenty of herb punch but little or no heat.  In Tucuman province, the standard side for your empanadas is fresh cut lime wedges meant to be squeezed into your empanada before each bite.  Awesome!

Fried empanadas. This cafe in Molinos served all empanadas fried regardless of filling.

Fried empanadas. This cafe in Molinos served all empanadas fried regardless of filling.

So many empanadas and so little time!  Did we draw any conclusions?  You bet.  Beef was our favorite filling.  And not just beef but “carne cortado con cuchillo.” Literally “beef cut with a knife.”  I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing that the diced beef develops a better sear, and thus more flavor than ground meat when its being browned.  In any event, empanadas made with diced beef were uniformly juicier and “beefier” tasting than those made with ground meat.  Chip and I also agreed that the best beef empanadas are baked, not fried.  And finally, after comparing empanadas from a variety of restaurants and cafes across the region, ranging from very sketchy joints to upscale restaurants, the best of the best for us were the meat empanadas from El Patio de Empanadas in Salta.  The filling in these was very juicy and just had more going on.  Including the  noticeable addition of cumin that took the flavor up a notch for sure. 

A sampling from El Rancho Felix in Tafi de Valle in Tucuman Province. Note the limon (lime) which is great addition squeezed into the filling between bites.

A sampling from El Rancho Felix in Tafi de Valle in Tucuman Province. Note the limon (lime) which is great addition squeezed into the filling between bites.

A sampling of empanadas from El Patio de Empanadas in Salta. These were the best beef empanadas that we tasted. The cheese - not so much. Note the red tomato salsa in the drink glass at left rear.

A sampling of empanadas from El Patio de Empanadas in Salta. These were the best beef empanadas that we tasted. The cheese - not so much. Note the red tomato salsa in the drink glass at left rear.

As far as the “non-beef” empanadas we tried, it seemed to us that making a juicy chicken empanada must be a real challenge because we never found one.  We had some that were tasty, but none were really juicy.  Having said that, the best we tasted were at a tiny café off the main square in Salta called La Tacita.  La Tacita also had hands down the best salsa we tried.   

The cheese empanadas we tried ranged from pretty bad to quite good.  The best had onions and peppers along with the cheese which was very creamy and had a nice tang.  Orujo, a restaurant on the square in Cafayate had the best cheese empanadas and also the best folk music we encountered.  A nice bonus.

This was a great tag on to the fishing we had done the week prior.Salta and the surrounding area have a lot to offer (besides empanadas!).We toured beautiful countryside, stopped in a various wineries for a taste, and visited ruins dating back to the 1500’s.Put it on your list – its worth the trip.

The last day of our road trip was from Cafayate to Cachi and then back to Salta. Most of the day was spent driving the Calchiquies Valley where the scenrey is spectacular - especially if you happen to be a geologist.

The last day of our road trip was from Cafayate to Cachi and then back to Salta. Most of the day was spent driving the Calchiquies Valley where the scenrey is spectacular - especially if you happen to be a geologist.