Head to Macondo for Chicago's Best Empanadas
I was woken by a stomach-churning caterwaul followed by a horrid thump and the sound of drywall crumbling into the chasm between the studs behind my bed.
There had been plenty of screaming matches between my roommate and his longtime girlfriend during my last year of college, but they were pretty harmless affairs, and after a while I learned to put my head under the pillow and go back to sleep. Though they fought like Ike and Tina (she, who once unleashed a slap, was Ike), rarely had any of their rows ever sounded liked Mike Tyson just met Muhammad Ali.
This time, though, my roommate had been caught red-lipped by the half-awake girlfriend while making out with one his good friends' fiancée, who was staying in our living room. The good news is that no one had thrown any uppercuts and it turned out the hole in the adjoining bedroom wall had come courtesy of a heavy biochemistry textbook. The bad news is that it was four in the morning, I couldn't go back to sleep, and I was hungry.
Finding My Gold Standard of Empanadas
Thankfully, my roommate was Guatemalan. Well, he was born there anyway. His father was actually a Frenchman raised in Guatemala and his mother an Anglo from Michigan, but the important thing is that there was some tasty culinary heritage in play. My roommate's grandmother, though French, took an interest in the foodways of Central America and had passed down her empanada recipe to his mother.
As a result, whenever my roommate went home, or his girlfriend came to visit, they came back with, as they did this night, a haul of Ziploc freezer bags full of half moon-shaped savory pastries. How I'd made it nineteen years without having an empanada, I'll never know (actually, I think it had something to do with growing up in one of the most homogeneous suburbias northeast of Detroit), but that night I had my first.
Sitting there in the dark, gnashing through flaky pastry, parsing salty olives, tender beef picadillo, and sweet raisins, I didn't mind being up. Once I tried the seafood empanadas filled with tiny native white shrimp bursting with sweet brininess, I even forgave my roommate for the intrusion (though his girlfriend packed up that night, slammed the door, and never forgave him).
Since that moment, my old roommate's mother's empanada has been the gold standard. There have been plenty of interlopers, but everything from soggy crust to bland filling ensured that her version stayed on top.
Macondo: As Good as Homemade
Until now. I have never been a big fan of the popular Lincoln Park South American BYOB meat market Las Tablas—though their huge steaks were okay, the service was always horrible. I didn't expect much when I ambled in to their new sister coffeehouse, Macondo, last week, but I should have known something was up when I found out the name of the place was a nod to the city from the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of my favorite books.
The guys behind the counter were super-gracious, and the fried to order empanadas were some of the best I've had in the city. They offer seven different flavors, but my favorite was the "tradicional" stuffed with tender shards of beef and velvety slices of steamy potato outfitted with a crispy crust accompanied by limey green chili-infused hot sauce. The handmade pocket had distinctive finger-pinch marks, and the hunks of meat inside had a very homey pot roast-like consistency. You could say it was just like mom—check that, like my roommates' mom—used to make.