Best Empanadas in Chicago at Cafe Tola

A blending of delicacies in a Lakeview venue with colorful Mexican pizzazz and an adventurous menu of daily crafted homemade empanadas and wickedly-delicious coffees guaranteed to rock your world.

in Illinois Makers, Food & Beverages
November 03, 2017

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Empanadas may have originated in Spain and Portugal, but it's hard to say Cafe Tola's homemade pastries don't belong right here in Chicago.

Since the city’s founding, Chicago has been a destination for immigrants arriving from every corner of the earth. From Pilsen to the Ukrainian Village, the city's multicultural neighborhoods make for an intoxicating worldwide mix of food, music and art that makes the city one of the great epicenters of diversity. This blending of delicacies is at its best at the family-run Cafe Tola, a Lakeview venue that bursts with colorful Mexican pizzazz and an adventurous menu of homemade empanadas and wickedly-delicious coffees, served fresh daily in a small, cozy space on Southport Avenue. (Cafe Tola recently opened a second location on California Avenue as well.)

When the husband-and-wife team of Victoria and Gerardo Salamanca set out to open an empanada and espresso café, little did they know that it would expand into a small empire within four years. All they knew was that they had a good recipe.

Each flavorful offering is inspired by Victoria's grandmother, the family matriarch with whom Victoria shares a name. (As a matter of fact, "Tola" is short for Victoria, so even the café carries on the tradition.) As the younger Tola tells it: her grandparents arrived in the United States and made a living by working on strawberry farms, selling food at Chicago flea markets, and running their own taverns and restaurants on the city's South Side—all while raising 12 kids. Her grandmother's ability to bring food and family together was a defining trait, which Victoria tries to embody whenever she creates another signature dish.

In the space itself, murals of Frida Kahlo cover the walls, a tribute to the empowering Mexican painter. But the highlight of Cafe Tola is its selection of fresh, delicious empanadas—a rotating selection ranging from traditional chicken salsa verde to a spicy red-pork creation that’ll melt your face off. Be sure to leave room for dessert, as you won’t want to skip out on the Nutella and Banana or the All-American Apple Pie empanadas. If you're in the neighborhood for breakfast, the chunky egg-and-chorizo — with its blistered, densely-packed, tightly-crimped pastry—is a must-try. It pairs perfectly with offerings from Cafe Tola’s famous espresso bar, where iced coconut coffees cool your jets in the summertime and spicy-hot mochas make Chicago’s notorious winter months a little more bearable.

The name Empanada comes from the Spanish verb empanar, meaning “to wrap unique combinations of meats, cheeses and vegetables.” In a way, it's a fitting parallel to Cafe Tola itself, which wraps Victoria's cooking in the unique essence of this culturally rich city. Here you’ll find that every visit leads to another adventure of diverse flavors and impeccable taste.

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