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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Five-dollar* lunches: Lito's Empanadas

Posted By on 10.10.12 at 11:00 AM

Chicago newcomer and blogger Gwynedd Stuart loves to eat out, but she also happens to be a poor person because she's a Chicago newcomer and a blogger. In this weekly feature she seeks out affordable midday meals that don't exceed five bucks (*actually seven, with tax and tip).

Im a real sucker for the Litos imprint along the seam.
I was a lucky teenager. I didn't have acne. I performed well on standardized tests. I maintained a size-two figure despite lunches frequently consisting of the cafeteria's taco bar fixins shoveled into my maw with Cool Ranch Doritos. Also, my best friend's mother was (still is!) Argentinian and made (still does!) the best empanadas I've ever had. Granted, they were probably the only empanadas I'd had at that point, so they had a competitive advantage. But even as I've grown older and my palate has matured beyond salty snack foods piled with soy meat and watery refried beans, Mrs. Butarelli's empanadas have lived on. The crispy, bubbly, wheat-flour dough (versus the corn-flour dough used in other South American variations) encased a filling of ground beef, slippery little bits of egg white, pieces of briny green olive, and—the key ingredient, to my mind—raisins.

Suddenly, I'm a lucky adult because I found a place that understands how much olives and raisins belong in beef empanadas. And it's cheap.

Lito's Empanadas, a tiny takeout joint in Lincoln Park, deals exclusively in the savory pastries, the exception being two dessert versions. The limited focus pays off, which I think is often the case. I almost never complain about small menus; do a few things and do them right, that's my motto. Fine, I don't really have a motto.

The 11 items on Lito's menu range in price from $2.29 to $2.59, so if you're a person who's into math and you're familiar with the premise of this column, that means I'm expecting you to make a lunch out of just two empanadas—and a soda, if you want to splurge and spend the extra dollar. Hear me out: these empanadas are a nice size and they're well stuffed and if you had a big breakfast, two can make a meal. If you're starving or you're a 200-pound man or you have a tapeworm, maybe it isn't the time or place for a five-dollar lunch.

Now, I referred to it a "takeout joint," but they do have a few seats: six stools at a counter along the front window. That said, we got our order to go and headed back to Logan Square, a journey that necessitated a quick reheat in the oven at 400 degrees. They were still delicious.

Look at that filling (but ignore the bottle of Barefoot cab).
  • GWYNEDD STUART
  • Look at that filling (but ignore the bottle of Barefoot cab)
We tried five varieties, so, basically, half the menu: the beef, of course; Hawaiian (ham, pineapple, and mozzarella); spinach, mozzarella, and onion; BBQ chicken (saucy, shredded chicken and potatoes); and the apple-cinnamon dessert empanada.

The beef empanadas were exactly what the overgrown version of the teenage me hoped they would be. Well-seasoned meat in a bubbly, golden-brown pocket of dough with bursts of saltiness and sweetness from the olives and raisins. The surprise standouts were the spinach and the Hawaiian empanadas. Not traditional variations, to be sure, but the deep, creamy chew of mozzarella inside the pastry makes tradition a thing that doesn't really matter. The Hawaiian was like a calzone minus the ricotta and the spinach was like spanakopita minus the sometimes-too-salty bite of feta. The only one we decided we could live without was the BBQ chicken. It wasn't bad, but the sauce was a little too sweet and the potato added nothing but unnecessary bulk. The apple-cinnamon empanada was reminiscent of those little apple pies at McDonald's, and I mean that in the very best way.

A thing to try next time is the champiñon chicken empanada, made with chicken, cheese, sauteed mushrooms, tomato, and onion. And Yelpers sure rave about the choco-banana empanada, filled with Nutella. I'm going to say it aloud for the first time: I don't love Nutella. I realize that's a controversial opinion. But it feels good to get it off my chest.

Lito's Empanadas, 2566 North Clark Street, (773) 857-1337

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