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Empanadas Are the Star of This San Jose Cafe's Vast Mexican American Menu

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On a wooden cutting board, three empanadas cut open to show the fillings inside.
Three different flavors of savory empanadas from Cheff Che Cafe & Bar, a Mexican American restaurant in San Jose that started out as a pandemic-born home empanada business.  (Octavio Peña)

Cheff Che Cafe & Bar is one of those restaurants that seems to have a hundred miscellaneous dishes on the menu. It slings classic American brunch fare, homestyle Mexican breakfast and amalgamations of the two, like a fajitas Benedict and omelets smothered in mole. It serves burgers, hard tacos, crepes and even Italian frittatas.

But the not-so-hidden gem of the menu? Mexican-style empanadas, available in both sweet and savory flavors. At Cheff Cafe, these aren’t just a throwaway appetizer — they’re arguably the very heart of the business.

Before it was a proper restaurant, Cheff Che was one of the countless small, home-based food businesses that were born out of the pandemic. When shelter-in-place went into effect, owner Julio Garcia lost his restaurant job and decided to use his decades of cooking experience to start an empanada business based out of his family’s garage in Hayward. He created his own recipes and advertised his creations on Facebook Marketplace, where their popularity led to him delivering boxes of empanadas to customers all over the Bay Area.

The success also gave Garcia the confidence to open his first restaurant, Cheff Che, in November of 2022. It’s located on The Alameda, a passageway in San Jose that’s sprinkled with cafes and bus stops for commuters heading downtown.

“I opened this place to share what I most love,” says Garcia. “It’s cooking and hosting people.”

Two chefs pose outside of their restaurant; the one on the right holds a stack of menus.
Cheff Che owner Julio Garcia (right) poses outside of his restaurant with one of his chefs, Oscar Rojas. (Octavio Peña)

For Garcia, hospitality is essential to the dining experience. The first time I entered the restaurant, I felt like I had walked into a family breakfast party. Bruno Mars was playing over the speakers, colorful dancing lights projected on the wall and people sipping super-sized mimosas. Garcia even removed the option to check in with a tablet to ensure every customer is greeted by a friendly face.

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The party-sized menu is large enough to be intimidating, with its selection of breakfast skillets, pancakes, burgers and tacos dorados listed alongside more home-style Mexican dishes like sauce-simmered huevos ahogados served with quesadillas and chorizo links for dipping.

But the empanadas are still the star of the menu — and by far the most popular item. Garcia says they make 200 of them each day in over a dozen flavors. Although Garcia is Mexican, and Cheff Che’s menu is primarily Mexican American, his empanadas aren’t the fried, masa-based variety most commonly found in Mexico. Instead, Garcia makes the dough with wheat flour and butter, and bakes it like you would for a Central or South American empanada. This hybrid style is common in the U.S., but Garcia refined his recipe through years of working with dough in restaurant kitchens. The finished empanadas are flaky and crisp like pie crust, with a light and buttery flavor that gives the flavorful fillings space to shine.

A plate of red chilaquiles with a side of breakfast potatoes.
Besides its many varieties of empanadas, the restaurant serves a broad menu of Mexican American favorites, like the chilaquiles pictured here. (Octavio Peña)
Three sweet empanadas, cut open to show their cross sections.
Sweet empanadas might feature homemade marmalade, betún de queso crema or the Mexican caramel known as cajeta. (Octavio Peña)

Those fillings, too, are made from scratch. For example, a majority of the sweet empanadas are filled with a combination of homemade marmalade and betún de queso crema, a frosting Garcia makes by whipping together orange, vanilla, powdered sugar and cream cheese. The result is a well-balanced, tangy sweetness that melts on your tongue.

Other empanadas draw inspiration from traditional Mexican sweets. There’s a churro empanada that’s dusted with cinnamon sugar, for example, and an empanada filled with cajeta — a savory-sweet caramel made by cooking goat’s milk down to the texture of fudge. Even customers who are familiar with these treats will enjoy the textural experience of tasting them encased in an empanada.

If you’re only going to try one thing on the menu, get the chicken mole empanada. In Mexico, mole recipes vary widely from region to region and family to family, but the one thing they all have in common is the pride the creator has in their own particular version. The Oaxacan mole negro that Garcia uses in his empanadas — as well as his omelets and enchiladas — is his grandmother’s secret recipe. As such, Garcia refused to share any specific details, but a mole negro is typically made by charring chiles and other spices to develop a savory, complex flavor and a bitterness that’s counteracted by the addition of chocolate. The result is a unique, rich sauce that’s incredibly difficult to master.

Close-up view of the chicken mole empanada, made using Garcia's grandmother's secret recipe.
Garcia uses his grandmother’s secret Oaxacan mole negro recipe to make his chicken mole empanada. (Octavio Peña)

What makes Garcia’s mole special is the way it gracefully balances all of the different flavors and elements. In that sense, the mole empanada perfectly showcases what Cheff Che is all about — flavors that are very deep and personal, presented to the customer in a single portable, delicious package.

“We went through a lot of difficult times because it’s our first place, but it’s good to learn,” Garcia says. “We care about the people behind us — the cooks, the servers and the people who first came in and loved the food and stayed with us.”

Cheff Che Cafe & Bar (975 The Alameda #80, San Jose) is open daily from 8 a.m to 3 p.m.

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