2566 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60614 (map); 773-857-1337; litosempanadas.com
The Short Order: Freshly fried empanadas with a wide range of fillings.
Want Fries with That? No sides are necessary, though desserts are worth a look.
Seats? There is a small counter by the window.
I've been eating at a lot of hot dog stands recently, a fact that I'm not exactly complaining about. Sure, they've all been remarkably good, but I realize I've been neglecting the many other different kinds of stands. Take Lito's Empanadas. Founded in 2007 by Carlos Escalante, Lito's sells empanadas, and only empanadas, in a very tiny storefront in Lincoln Park (though a second location is preparing open soon in Little Italy). Sure, there are a few stools next to a counter by the window, but the employee looked at me like I was crazy when I said I would be eating in.
So it's obviously a stand, but that still didn't mean Lito's was going to be a good one. I was a little concerned, especially after reading this negative review in the Chicago Reader. In the review, Mike Sula complained, justly, that the empanadas were fried ahead of time and then held in a holding oven, making for a limp crust.
But I'm glad to report that things have changed. I waited a good five to eight minutes after I ordered, and I watched as the raw empanadas were removed from the fridge and then tossed in the fryer. Each showed up in the basket with a crisp and crackly crust, which also managed to be flaky inside. I was off to a good start.
Lito's may only serve empanadas, but with eleven different fillings to choose from, you can put together a meal with a surprising amount of variety. First on my list was the Chori-Cheese ($2.39), which is apparently also one of the most popular options (at least according to the cashier). I'm a sucker for chorizo, but I worried that the cheese would make this too heavy and greasy. But Lito's shows a surprising amount of restraint, stuffing each one with just enough filling to make each bite balanced.
Even better was the Champinon Chicken ($2.49), which included tender braised chicken with sautéed mushrooms, tomatoes, and onions. Warming and filling, this was absolutely perfect for the cold night.
Spinach ($2.09) has been on the menu since the very beginning, and thanks to the mozzarella cheese, it's just gooey enough to feel filling without being too decadent. It's also the one that most benefited from some of Lito's homemade hot sauce ($.25).
At the last second, apple cinnamon ($2.29) was added to the order. Though the idea of wanting to end a meal of empanadas with even more empanadas didn't sound like the best plan, all the debate felt pointless after one bite. Thanks to the crisp exterior and the gushing filling of apples, it tasted like some perfect McDonald's hand pie, or at least how I imagined it tasting like as a kid. But unlike the sugar-loaded version from the Golden Arches, this one was only marginally sweet. I'll be adding one of these to every order from now on.