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A section of a restaurant space is decorated with a purple neon sign that reads “@ChicagoEmpanadaMama.” Kim Kovacik/Eater Chicago

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Puerto Rican Empanadas Pair With Rum in West Town

Chicago Empanada Mama also offers Caribbean rum tastings.

The hard work has finally paid off for Inez Melendez, who poured five years into growing her empanada business from a food truck to a virtual restaurant, and finally, into a permanent restaurant. Chicago Empanada Mama opened last week at 1703 W. Chicago Avenue after a year-long construction process allowing Melendez to offer homey Puerto Rican dishes, Caribbean cocktails, and rum tastings.

A black storefront restaurant with a sign that reads “Empanada Mama.”
A former food truck is now a permanent restaurant.

Launched just days before the city’s Puerto Rican Day Parade, the restaurant features a roster of sweet and savory empanadas such as quesitos con guava (guava, gruyere), cochinita con quesio (ham, cheese), and ropa vieja (beef, potatoes). That’s in addition to classic sides like arroz con gandules, shrimp ceviche with plantain chips, and Puerto Rican potato salad made with apples.

The restaurant opened with cups of coffee from nearby Dark Matter and bottles of malta, a nostalgic and booze-free island favorite. Grown-up patrons can also try rum-based cocktails like Esteban’s Smoked Rum-Fashioned (Ron Zacapa Centenario, chocolate bitters, pecan smoke) and Titi-Martha-Rita (guava, lime, tequila, Grand Marnier), as well as beers from breweries like nearby Forbidden Root.

A cafe counter with a large heating unit that holds empanadas wrapped in foil.
Both sweet and savory empanadas await.
A colorful cafe space with hanging basket lamps.
Owner Inez Melendez hopes the restaurant will become a neighborhood hangout spot.

Plump, golden, and stuffed with a wide variety of ingredients, empanadas come from numerous countries including Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Belize, Ecuador, and the Philippines. The hand pies reflect numerous regional styles — some are made from corn flour, others from wheat; some are fried while others are baked — that can be found in Chicago restaurants and bakeries. In Puerto Rico, where both baked and fried wheat empanadas are ubiquitous, locals often refer to them as empanadillas or pastelillos, sparking vigorous debate over the preferred nomenclature.

Melendez grew up cooking alongside her mother, Rosita, a consummate host who loved to bring her friends and family together for hearty Puerto Rican meals, she tells Block Club Chicago. Melendez hopes to foster that same cozy atmosphere in her vibrant new restaurant space, where the walls are painted teal and blush pink. Hanging basket lamps and stylish Edison bulbs channel festive energy into the counter-service storefront, which is laden with greenery and floral blooms — a tribute to Aibonito, Melendez’s father’s hometown in Puerto Rico that’s famed for its flower gardens and nurseries.

A round white plate holds three empanadas and a pile of Puerto Rican rice.
The team offers sides including Puerto Rican rice.
A hand holds half of an empanada filled with ham and cheese.
Cochinita con quesio (ham, cheese).
An empanada ripped in half filled with guava jam and cheese.
Quesitos con guava (guava, gruyere).
An empanada torn in half filled with chicken, basil, and cheese.
La Flaka (chicken, basil, cheese).

Despite the many nods to its owner’s heritage, Chicago Empanada Mama is no beachside cafe — plush velvet chairs, stools, and upholstered couches line the dining room. Melendez and her team hope to entice patrons to linger and feel comfortable hanging out, and comfortable seating can go a long way.

Look around West Town’s new Puerto Rican restaurant in the photos below.

Chicago Empanada Mama, 1703 W. Chicago Avenue, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

A row of two-top tables against a light pink wall with colorful artwork.
Bright colors channel the island atmosphere of Puerto Rico.
A close-up shot of a purple neon sign that reads “@ChicagoEmpanadaMama.”
A corner of a restaurant space with blue velvet couches and lots of floral decorations.
Roomy, plush furniture beckons diners to stay a while.

Chicago Empanada Mama

1703 West Chicago Avenue, , IL 60622 (775) 244-6262 Visit Website

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