Empanadas, a Latin and South American food staple, are top-notch at these five San Francisco restaurants.
Virtually every culture in the world has some form of savory pastry-based food. The French have gougéres, the Chinese have steamed buns, Greeks and Turks have stuffed vegetable and meat pies, Indians have samosas, and Brits have all manner of savory stuffed dough.
American cooking has a history of piecing together traditions from other cultures, and the savory pastries that have most caught on in the U.S. are calzones, meat turnovers, and savory breakfast concoctions involving flour and butter. The South American tradition of empanadas, which can be savory or sweet, has taken root in San Francisco, not as an Americanized food, but straight out of Argentina, widely considered to be the home of the world’s best empanadas. This guide covers the five top spots for empanadas in the city, four Argentinian—plus one that happens to be Chilean, a variation on the usual theme.
Basically, empanadas are street food: portable, easy to manage with one hand, and good at room temperature or heated. So, it’s no wonder that they’re a popular choice in a major American city where sit-down meals are expensive and time-consuming. The range of variety among fillings is also impressive. All are baked, and not fried, which is an important distinction from some of the less authentic (and greasier) versions you might encounter.
El Sur Empanadas
The best empanadas we found in San Francisco are, hands-down, those at the new brick-and-mortar version of the food truck Marianne Despres has operated out of a vintage 1970s Citroën since 2012. Her new shop, El Sur, is now open in Potrero Hill. The secret of Despues’ success, aside from her many years spent in Argentina, might simply be attributed to the homemade suet rendered in house that makes the dough so flaky. But the fillings here are also of the highest quality, both in terms of ingredients and their combination. And the homemade sauces, both the traditional chimichurri and and spicy salsa criolla, are the final touch that lands these at the top of our list.
We tried all five of the empanadas on the menu, which also includes salads and gluten-free skewers options. It was impossible to choose a favorite. The pastry, pressed into various shapes after stuffing to indicate each filling, is crisp, flaky, moist and absorbent, basically everything you might ask of a dough.
The “traditional” is stuffed with hand-cut grassfed beef from Five Dot Ranch, onion, oregano, olive, pimentón and egg. This is a good place to start, as it features the balanced flavors of the region: meat with sweet red peppers and salty olives, offset by eggs. Pollo saltado is stuffed with chicken, onion, tomato, parsley, and a pleasing hint of serrano chile. The Parisien is as rich as the name implies: Kurobuta ham with a creamy sauce made of five cheeses, along with another ham, prosciutto, and two kinds of onions, green and chives.
There are two vegetarian options, verde and champiñones, the former with Swiss chard, spinach, onion, cheese sauce, olive and egg, and the latter with buttery button mushrooms sautéed with shallots, mixed with provolone (stringy rather than creamy), crème fraîche and chives. In lieu of the suet used for the non-vegetarian empanadas, Despres makes a special dough with eggs and butter for these.
The two sauces go with all five of the empanadas equally. I have a slight preference for the traditional chimichurri on the beef- and chicken-stuffed empanadas and the spicy criolla, higher in acidity, on the empanadas with creamier sauces (the Parisien and the verde). The mushroom was quite good without any adornment.