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May 29, 2011 05:13 PM

The GTA guide to Colombian empanadas (really, really long)

8 'hounds spent 6 hours on Saturday driving around Greater Toronto looking for the best Colombian empanadas. Colombian empanadas have shells made from corn meal, are filled exclusively with a beef and potato mixture and they are deep fried. Other types of South American empanadas have shells made from a regular wheat flour dough/pastry, can be filled with a variety of ingredients and are baked.

We made 7 stops for Colombian empanadas*, 2 stops for non-Colombian empanadas and several opportunistic stops for other goodies that happened to be within striking range of our planned stops.

Several 'hounds took photos. Here is one set:

Stop 1: Bagel Flame - 126 Wellington St West, Aurora
Who goes to Aurora for empanadas?! Especially to a shop that is a Jewish bakery during the week and a Colombian bakery on the weekends? Apparently, crazy chowhounds do. But fortunately, it was worth the drive. The empanadas had a great shell that had a little bit of crisp, but a lot of nice chew. The filling was very good and they served them with a side of a spicy guacamole sauce. We also picked up a couple of their alfajors, which were absolutely, positively the BEST alfajors that any of us had ever had. They were simply melt in your mouth tender, and surprisingly not too sweet, despite the mound of powdered sugar on them. There was just enough dulce de leche to provide a nice filling, but not overwhelm the cookie. Verdict: 2nd best Colombian empanada of day. Best alfajor, ever. Several of us bought extra empanadas to take home. They heat up really well the next day, as the extra chew seemed to keep the shell from getting too hard and dried out when re-heated.

Stop 2: Two places in the food court at Plaza Latina - 9 Milvan Court

2a: La Costenita
I honestly can't recall how these were. Verdict: I'm guessing that they were pretty forgettable. :


2b: Autentica Panaderia (not Colombian, likely Argentinean style)
These were the traditional South American empanadas and were probably the best that any of us had ever had. The pastry was thin and tender with just a bit of flakiness. The chorizo one was packed full of very tasty, though not very spicy, chorizo. The seafood was chock full of a mild, tasty seafood filling. You can see the whole shrimps packed into the filling. Verdict: The 3rd best empanada of the day, but easily the best baked-style empanada that most of us had ever had. Several of us picked up a few to take home.

Opportunistic side stops 1, 2 and 3: Of course, we couldn't be in that food court and not try a few other things. So we also tried an awesome lomo saltado (which finally solves the craving I've had ever since El Bodegon closed down), pupusa, steak sandwich and some fruity drink. Verdict: This food court is truly a hidden gem in the city and needs to be frequented and touted by more 'hounds! We plan on going back and trying a couple of dishes from each and every vendor.

Stop 3: Juan Meat Market - 40 Beverly Hills Drive (Argentinean style)
Very, very cool Latin American supermarket with a huge deli counter filled with prepared foods (see the photos) and a meat counter bursting with cuts of every kind. The split, roasted suckling pigs were incredibly tempting, too. We picked up 2 different types of empanadas -- one beef, one chicken. The pastry was rather doughy and the fillings were ok, but not great. The beef was a bit dry, but the chicken was some nice shredded chicken that was both moist and flavourful. Verdict: OK, but they were crushed by the quality of the Argentinean empanadas from the food court at Plaza Latino.

Opportunistic side stop 4: Kabul Farms Supermarket (right next door to Juan Meat Market)
We picked up a bolani, which is a thin flat bread filled with chives and leeks (rather reminiscent of Chinese green onion pancakes) and some samosas. The bolani was tasty, but not crispy (which I had hoped for) and the hot sauce was quite good. The samosas were not particularly good -- the pasty was rather thick and soft and the filling had an unusual spice mixture that tasted reminiscent of a Chinese curry beef bun filling. Verdict: wickedly cool market with some prepared foods worth exploring.

Stop 4: Cafe Las Americas
Perfect shell -- crispy with just a bit of chew, tasty filling, excellent vinegary hot sauce. Verdict: the clear winner, hands down. Several of us bought a half dozen or dozen to take home. Not quite as awesome heated up the next day, but still really good.

Opportunistic side stop 5: Rancho Latina (in the plaza next door to Cafe Las Americas)
When we saw that this was also a Colombian restaurant, we had to pick up empanadas, of course. Horribly greasy (like oozing grease) and hard, tasteless shell and filling. Verdict: really awful, the worst of the bunch.

Opportunistic side stop 6: Seara Portuguese Bakery (across from CLA)
They have a patio where we ate the spoils from the stops 3 - 5. We picked up a bunch of Portuguese baked goodies to share -- a few donut-like items, a few natas, a bean tart and a glazed puff pastry item that looked like a donut, but was like a crispy mille-feuille without the custard. I still prefer the sweets at Doce Minho, but really, what's not to like about sweet, fried doughy things? Verdict: good if you're in the area, not worth a separate trip.

Opportunistic side stop 7: Churrasqueira Estrela (next door to Seara)
The smell of charcoal smoke was too much to bear, so a couple of us went in a picked up a couple of chickens and side dishes to take home. The chicken was amazingly smokey and delicious. Verdict: I don't have a lot of other churrasco chickens to compare it against, but it was damn tasty and a pretty good deal for $11.50 a chicken. Decent rice and potatoes, too.

Stop 5: El Rancherito - 1646 St Clair Ave W
OK shell, bland filling, wickedly hot sauce. Verdict: middle of the road, not worth a repeat visit.

Stop 6: Latin Fiesta - 1002 St Clair Ave W
A bad sign that we were given ketchup and mayo instead of hot sauce. The empanadas were pale and not that crisp and probably could have used another minute in the fryer. The bland-ish filling and lack of any hot sauce made this a waste of calories. Verdict: Forgettable.

Stop 7: Mi Tierra - 828 Saint Clair Avenue W
OK shell, blandish filling. I can't recall the hot sauce. Verdict: middle of the road, not worth a repeat visit.

Opportunistic side stop 8: Baked on Lauder
Got a nutella pie from here. It was very pretty, but the taste did not live up to the looks. The pastry managed to be both hard and pasty at the same time and the filling was just not that interesting and was rather gritty (we guessed from the addition of ground hazelnuts). Verdict: pass on it.

Opportunistic side stop 9: The Stockyards
Picked up a pound and a half of pastrami and a bunch of limeades. There was much rejoicing when we discovered they had their awesome pastrami available. The limeades were a refreshing way to wash down the salt bomb. Verdict: fantastic.

And that was it. We took the food from stops 5 onward to Wychwood park and sat at a picnic table and finished our day of feasting. It was rather epic to watch one hound snarf down a half pound of Stockyards' pastrami.

All in all, it was a brilliant day of chowing and exploring the world of Colombian (and other) empanadas. By the way, this tour was announced and planned on the Chowhound Toronto google group for anyone interested in future outings.

*Other places known to have Colombian empanadas that we chose to skip, that were closed or that we've been to:

- Antojitos - 803 Lakeshore Rd E, Mississauga
- Los Arrieros - 752 Wilson Ave (we went, but they are no longer there, though there is a location on Jane St.)
- Motivos - 1042 Saint Clair Avenue W (closed when we got there)
- Columbus Bakery - 2931 Dufferin St. (which we've all tried -- not as good as our top 2)

El Bodegon
537 College St, Toronto, ON M6G1A9, CA

Los Arrieros
276 Jane St, Toronto, ON M6S3Z2, CA

Mi Tierra Restaurant
828 St Clair Ave W, Toronto, ON M6C1C1, CA

Cafe Las Americas
2260 Keele St, Toronto, ON M6M3Y9, CA

El Rancherito
1646 St Clair Ave W, Toronto, ON M6N1H8, CA

La Costenita
9 Milvan Dr, Toronto, ON M9M2E1, CA

Latin Fiesta Restaurant
1002 St Clair Ave W, Toronto, ON M6E1A2, CA

Motivos Restaurant
1042 St Clair Ave W, Toronto, ON M6E1A5, CA

Columbus Bakery
2931 Dufferin St, Toronto, ON M6B, CA

Doce Minho
2189 Dufferin St, Toronto, ON M6E, CA

Baked on Lauder
145 Lauder Ave, Toronto, ON M6H 3E4, CA

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  1. 2a was bland and filled with giant pieces of potato i believe. the meat was quite pale as well, but i don't recall the shell being offensive.

    2b i was crazy impressed with the crispness of the dough on the exterior considering it wasn't very thick at all and the moistness and generosity with regards to the filling. i could have used more flavour but it was great.

    5 i think was also made worse in that they didn't use ground meat but had stewed beef that was dry and stringy.

    a really great day! will need another theme soon ;)

    1. A worthy venture of gastronauts! Would be nice to see some mapping to go with this. I've spent the last few weeks enjoyig the conflagration of Chilean, Mexican and Venezuelan at the new little mecca of El Gordo on Augusta. What were the compositions of the hot sauces?

      El Gordo
      214 Augusta Ave, Toronto, ON , CA

      2 Replies
      1. re: Snarf

        Here's a partial map:

        It doesn't contain the opportunistic stops, but I think all the main stops we had are there.

        The hot sauces were usually a vinegar base with minced chiles, onions and maybe garlic? Each place had it's own variation. Maybe someone else has a better idea of the composition of the hot sauces.

        1. re: Snarf

          while the hot sauces were distinct, i didn't think any one in particular had any purpose than being spicy and something sharp to cut through the fried corn enclosure. they're just little side add ons, not expecting a whole lot of complexity.. i really did think that the slightly vinegary guac from bagel flame was a really interesting match and completely different from everyone else.

        2. Outstanding report Jo.

          I will make one comment first that was just an observation upon reflection. By and large, the empanadas we liked the best were eaten right away. Others that spent time in the bag and travelled seemed to suffer. That would be particularly bad for the dough based ones from Juan Meat Market.

          I will also add that the chorizo and seafood ones from Autentica are Chilean not Argentinian.

          So here's my 2c.

          1) Suprised at how much I enjoyed Bagel Flame. A word to the wise, don't get there too early as they seem to be slow getting set up. Shelves were empty the previous week when I went but that was a full 2 hours earlier than we arrived. All in all, a great little place.

          2a) Clearly my favourite but that's because I prefer dough to cornmeal. Oddly enough I liked the chorizo better on the tour but warmed up the next day I found the seafood to be better.

          5) I though the hot sauce was excellent. Pretty tasty and yes, wickedly hot. Blow the doors off hot. Fortunately made the empanadas and pupusas palatable. The slaw the served with it was awful as well.

          As for the side stops I'll start with Churesquarea Estrala. Fabulous chicken. I really liked the rice and I also picked up a tub of olives which were good the day of but better the next day.

          I was disappointed in the empanadas from Juan Meat Market. They probably suffered as was said above but that's no excuse for the poor execution. There were air pockets inside and that's not good. Great place and the beef looked fantastic.

          Kabul farms is really cool too. In their meat case there were veal brains, goat heads and some sort of innards. The guy at the hot table was very friendly and seemed generally flattered that 4 Asians and 4 round eyes were so interested in his food. I really liked the bolani but since it the only one I've ever had, I have no baseline to compare.

          Last but certainly not least was the stop at Mercado Latino. Other than the reasonably forgettable empanadas everything was no worse that very good IMHO. The goodies from the Chilean place (Autentica) would've been the highlight for me but for the lomo saltado from the Peruvian place with no name. It's a dish I'd never heard of and now suddenly don't know how I can live without. Thanks Jo.

          Honestly hounds, you really need to get up to the Mercado. It's a bit difficult to find and rather intimidating but for a true, true adventure in food without ever leaving city limits this is the place.
          I look forward to our triumphant return.


          6 Replies
          1. re: Davwud

            i don't know if i agree with your travel assessment completely. the restaurant locations were frying on the spot whereas the grocery and bakery locations often just had them sitting in the case. so there was easily a fair amount of time that they could have been waiting for us. the second best colombian empanada and best dough empanada were both in such a scenario.

            actually... really the only empanadas that were carried for a period of time were from the 9 milvan spot, otherwise we all convened right after after retrieving them from multiple locations. i do think some shells may have suffered from steaming out a bit but overall if the filling was bland or awful that tended to be the main issue.

            i do have to say, that while i was sitting in the car i did find it pretty funny that people in TO seem so desperate to find good mexican even though we have some really interesting and delicious latino food of other varieties in pretty good abundance.

            1. re: Davwud

              Davwud: I think you meant 2b as your favourite (Autentica Panaderia). 2a were the really greasy ones we brought to Wychwood with us. Sky Ranch on Dufferin has lomo saltado on their menu too but I find their version too salty. I prefer the one from the no name place at Mercado (we really need a return trip just to figure out their name!). Does anyone remember where the pupusas came from? I think I have it labeled wrong in the pictures. Let me know and I'll revise. Thanks.

              Sky Ranch
              2473 Dufferin St, Toronto, ON M6B3P9, CA

              1. re: fickle

                i don't think you have a photo of the place and in the name is "pupuseria" so i think finding it again will not prove difficult ;)

                as for the peruvian place with no signage visable i suspect it may be called El Sabroson Comida Peruana based on some googling.

                El Sabroson
                9 Milvan Dr, Toronto, ON M9M2E1, CA

                1. re: pinstripeprincess

                  I can not figure out the name of the place with the lomo on the menu. It has a Peruvian flag above it but as the picture below will show, there's no obvious sign.


                  1. re: pinstripeprincess

                    I did have a picture but didn't upload it because I didn't remember what we had from there! Thanks for the reminder, I've added the pic to the collection. The name is Pupuseria El Buen Sabor.

                    Pupuseria El Buen Sabor
                    9 Milvan Dr, Toronto, ON M9M2E1, CA

              2. Sounds like a blast. Sorry I missed it. Thanks for the report!

                1. Despite the fact that this was an empanada tour, it was the alfajors that really were the revelation of the day for me. I always look at alfajors and think 'that looks amazing' and then taste them and find them kind of disappointingly dry and not very good. But the Bagel Flame alfajors were astoundingly good -- they really fulfill the promise of the way alfajors look.