Chicago is a city blessed with all kinds of empanadas, from the crispy corn flour pockets of Colombia and Venezuela to the plump, golden baked hand pies of Argentina. Yet somehow, a prominent player in the international empanada game is hard to find in local restaurants: the Chilean empanada. Larger than its South American cousins and served both baked and fried, the treat is ubiquitous throughout Chile, offered in establishments both humble and high-end.
It’s an omission that has baffled Pablo Soto, a native of Santiago, Chile, who immigrated 25 years ago to the U.S. Now he and his wife, Julie Morrow-Soto, spurred by the existential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, have taken steps to fill a void left by the 2012 closure of Rapa Nui, a Chilean restaurant in Irving Park. In May, the couple opened Don Pablo’s Kitchen & Bakeshop, a virtual restaurant in suburban Glenview specializing in Chilean empanadas, both sweet and savory, and aim to open a permanent location in late October or early November at 1007 W. Argyle Street in Uptown.
“This pandemic made us reevaluate where we are and how we wanted things to move forward for us with our careers” says Morrow-Soto. “We both decided it’s now or never — let’s go for this.”
Don Pablo’s, named for Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet and political activist Pablo Neruda, has quickly accrued a following with hits like the clásica — a traditional baked empanada stuffed with a blend of spices, sautéed angus sirloin, onion, hard boiled eggs, and briny black olives — and the poeta, a fried empanada filled with shrimp, corn, cheese, and basil. Soto honed his recipes during a three-week empanada boot camp with his Aunt Natasha in Santiago and visited lauded piemaker Los Roldán in the bohemian port city of Valparaíso. Fans also adore his earthy green chimichurri and buttery alfajores, delicate cookie sandwiched around soft caramel.
Chilean empanadas are often distinguished by their squared-off form; they resemble a plump rectangular package rather than a crescent moon. Traditionally, they feature a wheat flour dough in lieu of corn and serve as an ideal vehicle for the region’s top-notch seafood — especially during Lent, in this heavily Catholic country.
Don Pablo’s will initially launch as a takeout and delivery-only counter service spot with limited seating, but Soto and Morrow-Soto plan to eventually transition into a full-service restaurant, where they’ll also expand the menu to add Chilean ceviches, soups, salads, and more.
The pursuit of empanadas hasn’t always run smoothly. The couple initially planned to debut a restaurant in suburban Evanston but soon discovered the kitchen in the space they had chosen would require a significant overhaul. The news was disheartening, but Soto says he was inspired to stay the course by Neruda, whose portrait is featured in the restaurant’s logo.
“I took the spirit of Neruda as a poet, a man of the people, a seafood lover who cared about the rights of workers,” he says. “Once we had the logo, having that face made it easy to keep going — I’ve got this guy waiting for me, so we’ve got to get this done.”
Don Pablo’s Kitchen & Bakeshop, 1007 W. Argyle Street, Scheduled to open in late October or early November.
- Don Pablo’s Kitchen is one man’s ode to empanadas [Chicago Reader]