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In Search of Empanadas in Old San Juan

by Mary Chong
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There’s nothing like empanadas, warm from the oven or deep fryer, with the perfect amount of tasty filling and just the right amount of spice. Am I right?

Empanadas, for those not familiar, are pastries that are baked or fried and stuffed with combinations of meat, vegetables, cheese and even fruit and olives. They are similar to a turnover.

Whenever I’m in a place where there is great latin cuisine. I get out my giant magnifying glass and my Deerstalker Hat just like Sherlock Holmes and I set out in search of the ever elusive empanada.

I have my favourites in all different cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and even in Toronto! But Old San Juan, Puerto Rico is different – the narrow cobblestone streets made from bluestones baked in Spain in the 1800s, the brightly painted buildings with the old wooden doors, and the wrought iron balconies covered in flowers. No trip to San Juan is complete unless I’m eating empanadas on a bench in one of the many squares (plazas), with the warm sun overhead.

If you have a love for empanadas as much as I do and you are in Old San Juan you have 2 choices.

(If you are looking to recreate empanadas in your own kitchen at home, check out this recipe here.)

Empanadas

Choice #1 – Fried Empanadas

Old San Juan Food Court
405 San Francisco
Just south-west of Fort San Cristobal and north of the Starbucks on Calle Tetuán.

Read: Fort Castillo San Cristobal in Old San Juan Puerto Rico here

If you like your empanadas deep-fried then head over to the Old San Juan Food Court on the north side of Plaza de Colon (named to honour Christopher Columbus) next to the (famous and touristy) Cafe Berlin. The food court is a bit dingy and dark to be truthful and the restrooms are useful if you are desperate…but you aren’t there for the decor. You are here for the food. It’s good, it’s cheap and it’s authentic. The empanadas are found right at the entrance to the building.

Empanada

The empanadas here are slightly greasy. They are deep-fried after all. The size (about 6 inches long), flakiness of the crust and the flavour make up for the greasiness though. For the price of just a couple of dollars each, I like to buy a few so that I get a variety of flavours – they have beef, chicken, pork etc. They are satisfying snack that hits the spot.

Incidentally, if you want to try the other establishments inside the food court, I hear that the mofongo (a mashed mound of plantains, seafood, meat, or vegetables) and the pernil (roasted pork) are excellent…

Save Room for Choice #2 – Baked Empanadas

Empanada

Mate Natural Market
366 San Francisco
Just west of the Old San Juan Food Court and Plaza de Colon

You can see by the empanada shaped sign out front that it isn’t hard to tell what they sell here! This tiny storefront sells other items as well such as sandwiches, wraps, salads, smoothies and snacks but this post is about the empanada…

As mentioned, at Mate’s the empanadas are baked so that they are healthier. The dough is dense and not flaky in comparison to the ones found at the food court. They also aren’t as long in size either but they have more filling and are stuffed thick with tasty, moist goodness with just the right amount of olives and spice. Make sure that your empanada is hot, if not ask for them to heat it up for you. A cold empanada is not a good thing.

Empanada

Mate Natural Market is take-out only but it’s a quick walk back to Plaza de Colon and the bench that awaits you…

The next time you are in Old San Juan take a break from touring the forts and shopping the quaint shops and try one…or two…or perhaps three empanadas at one of the local establishments. Baked or fried, you’ll leave San Juan with a memory your taste buds won’t soon forget.

Do you have a favourite food that you are always searching for? Join the discussion…

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