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.
The new sit-down space is light-filled, service is friendly and well organized, and a glimpse into the huge kitchen reveals a precise, smooth-running operation. We’ll be back to try the rest of the menu.
El Sur Empanadas
300 De Haro St., Ste. 342
San Francisco, CA 94103 [Map]
Ph: (415) 530-2803
Hours: Mon-Fri, 10am-2pm; closed Sat and Sun
Instagram: @ elsursf
Price Range: $ (under $10)
The Chilean entry on our list of five empanada spots, Chile Lindo, doubles as a fun place to immerse oneself in the Mission District, as all the seating is at an outdoor counter (just five stools) and most of the business is to-go orders which people line up for down the block.
Inside, chef-owner Paula Tejada works solo and steadily, prepping and baking her handmade stuffed-dough delights.
The main difference between Chilean and Argentinian empanadas is that Chilean dough tends to be more bready (less flaky) and the filling-to-dough ration tends to be a bit more substantial than the typical Argentinian empanada. It also seems that seasonings here are more elaborate than at the Argentinian spots (though they’re the same for all the empanadas).
And, of course, the stuffings feature regional variations, as well. We tried all six empanadas available the day we visited, and all were stuffed generously with a variety of fillings.
The “classic pino” is made with Niman Ranch beef, onions, raisins, olive and egg, seasoned with cumin, paprika, rock salt and fresh-ground pepper. The raisins give the mixture a sweetness that’s nicely offset by the spice mixture. The olives (the black Mission olives we rarely see on California menus anymore) are carefully placed one on each side, so that if you cut the empanada in half, each side contains a salty morsel.
Also traditional is the Goooool Al Merken, a spicy version of the class pino, kicked up with the addition of merken chiles, a Mapuche spice. This was my favorite of the bunch, and it’s also the most distinctively Chilean (because of the addition of this unique chile).
The straight-ahead pollo empanada is made with Mary’s chicken, cooked with onions and the same spice mixture that flavor the two above.
The chilanga and the jamón y queso are both cheese- and jalapeno-stuffed, the latter with ham as well.
The strangest menu item, essential in a trendy SF neighborhood, is the vegan empanada, whose main ingredient is Yves Meatless soy-based meat substitute (again, seasoned with the above spice mixture). It’s not the kind of thing most people would order, unless pressed by dietary restrictions, largely because it doesn’t have the fat required to make the whole mixture hang together.
The experience of sitting at the counter and watching the action, both inside the tiny kitchen and outside on the street, is a big draw. And the bags the goods are served in give re-heating instructions, with the important “DO NOT MICROWAVE” in all-caps. That, of course, would ruin the crispness of the dough.
Venga Empanadas, also in the Mission, offers an exhaustive menu of 20 choices, such that we could only try a fraction of the possibilities. This counter-service place is hopping pretty much all day long, with folks stopping in to get breakfast empanadas to go and others settling in for lunch, inside or outside, with salads and other non-empanada menu items and wine and beer for later in the day. Homemade fruit drinks are excellent accompaniments. (We had the mango and the strawberry.)
The empanadas here tend to be baked to greater doneness that at the other spots, lending more crispness to the final product. The name of the place, Venga, is stamped into the crimped part of the dough, called the “repulge.” Venga is certainly the spot among the five on this list that offers the widest range of fillings, from a Californiafied veggie option that includes Napa cabbage to a traditional “aji gallina,” version of chicken with yellow peppers.
Of the seven we tried, my favorites were the most traditional: the aforementioned aji gallina; the mushroom with zucchini, onions and fresh herbs; the ground beef with onions, red bell pepper and hardboiled egg; and the sweet corn with red bell pepper and mozzarella. The chimichurri sauce here is particularly mild, but a hot chile sauce available on all the tables remedies that.
What’s great about Venga is that the dough is consistently prepared and baked, so all you need to do is decide what fillings you prefer. The rest takes care of itself.
443 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94103 [Map]
Ph: (415) 552-5895
Hours: Sun and Mon-Thu, 8:30am-8pm; Fri-Sat, 8:30am-10pm
Price Range: $ (under $10)
El Porteño is, perhaps, the best-known spot on this list. With an active truck that also covers the East Bay, and an always-busy Ferry Building location, El Porteño has a reputation in the city for serving some of the best empanadas.
Our experience was good, if not great. Important to note is that, at the Ferry Building location, our server didn’t offer to heat the empanadas. It’s not a huge oversight, as many people worldwide eat room-temperature empanadas every day; in fact, these were still warm, though not hot. But a bit of crisping up, in my estimation, would’ve benefited the batch of six we ordered. At the very least, it would’ve been nice to have been offered the option.
We tried the camarones (shrimp), acelga (chard), jamón y queso (prosciutto and cheese), carne (beef) and champiñones (mushroom), then threw in a manzana (apple) just to try a non-savory empanada.
The camarones was a favorite: Bay shrimp with aged parmesan and green onions, a lovely combination of sweet seafood and tangy onions and cheese. Also a hit was the acelga, with organic Swiss chard, gruyere and toasted pinenuts.
The mushroom version, which turned out to be a throughline across all five spots, was particularly rich, shallot-laden and mixed with parmesan and crème fraîche.
The traditional carne, also a selection we tried at all five venues, was a bit flat here. The filling mixture of ground beef, onion, olives, raisins and eggs was rather bland, but the chimichurri, with lots of vinegar, helped.
The apple empanada would’ve been more satisfying if it had contained a bit more fruit to all the dough, but the flavor was nice.
There’s nowhere to sit inside the Ferry Building, so take your lunch outside. But beware of hungry seagulls, who’ll snatch your food right up if you turn your back, even for a second.
One Ferry Building, #18
San Francisco, CA 94111 [Map]
Ph: (510) 513-4529
Hours: Mon-Fri, 9am-7pm; Sat, 8am-7pm; 10am-5pm
Price Range: $ (under $10)
The final spot on our empanada tour, Tanguito, we sought out upon recommendation from a number of friends. A truck in the odd location of Fisherman’s Wharf (odd because it’s not particularly a tourist place) does a good job with a limited menu of empanada choices, and draws a local lunch crowd of neighborhood workers who gather at picnic tables in the tented seating area adjacent to the truck.
We tried six kinds of empanadas here, and they were all solidly constructed, prepared and served. The menu leans more toward the tradition Argentinean recipes, perhaps more than any other place we visited, and simplicity is also a value here. The tiny kitchen staff of two took the time to carefully heat the emapanadas we ordered to a perfect crisp.
Spinach, ground beef, chicken, corn, ham and cheese, and onion empanadas were all very generously stuffed, each prepared with few ingredients, featuring instead the main draw. So, the beef was mostly beef, spiced with onion and a bit of chile pepper; the chicken was simply that, stewed and pulled, sautéed with onion and red bell pepper and carrot.
The corn, obviously frozen, but sweet and tender, was lightly cheesy. Ham and cheese was something even a picky kid would eat. The surprising favorite had a traditional filling of sautéed onion with a bit of melted cheese: simple, hearty, rich.
2850 Jones St.
San Francisco, CA 94133 [Map]
Ph: (415) 577-4233
Hours: Tues-Fri, 11:30am-6:30pm; Sat, noon-7:30pm; Sun, noon-6:30pm; closed Mon
Price Range: $ (under $10) Cash only
When you need a savory carb fix, empanadas are abundant in San Francisco, and you’ll do well at any of these five spots that offer both traditional and contemporarily interpreted stuffed pastries. And you can’t beat the prices.