Empanadas will always have a special place in my carb-loving heart. My infatuation all started at Epcot, where one of my fondest Disney memories actually centered around the South American hot pocket. I remember exploring Epcot's multifaceted food pavilion with my family, stopping in one of their South American restaurants (maybe Brazil? That sounds right) for a snack. That snack was empanadas, marking my first foray into the delicacy. And it was love at first bite. Over the years in Chicago, I've scoured the city for exemplary empanadas that might live up to my childhood memories. The closest I've come is 5411 Empanadas, a food truck-cum-storefront with a location in Lincoln Park, and as of late, one in Wicker Park. After eating my way through the latter, here's my report.
(As delicious as they are cute)
5411 Empanadas, in case you're not acutely privy to South American dial codes, is a special homage to Argentina. The restaurant originated in 2009 as a food truck helmed by three Argentine expats and friends. It's so named for its special adherence to Argentine traditions, seeing as 54-11 is the number you'll need to dial when making a casual phone call to Buenos Aires. The truck was so successful it eventually spawned a brick-and-mortar storefront on the border of Lincoln Park and Lakeview. The space is slick, clean, and uber casual, featuring a focused menu of baked empanadas and some sweet desserts. Recently, 5411 expanded with a new location in Wicker Park, featuring more booze and later hours perfect for the Wicker Park bar-hopping crowd.
The restaurant perfectly toes the line between casual and upscale. It's counter service, but with more formality than your typical quick service haunt. First of all, it's not that quick. Empanadas are prepared to order, which takes time and patience. You will be rewarded with fresh, hot empanadas brimming with vibrant innards encased in a flaky, rich crust. While waiting, you'll find yourself immersed in a chic setting unlike most anything in Wicker Park. The bright storefront features a row of window-side tables and a bar outfitted with stools. It can be pretty tight and crowded come dinnertime, but during the day it's usually quite tranquil and open, whether you're dining in or getting food to-go. Behind the bar is a couple tap handles, one of which is that staple South American spirit, Fernet. They sure make it easy to inject this fiery potable into your mouth. There's also craft beer aplenty and some agua frescas.
Do the empanadas at 5411 live up to my Epcot dreams? Handily. My childhood self would be enamored with the eclectic array of classic and modern empanadas, each one shaped differently so as to appropriately differentiate. They even offer a handy empanada guide to help diners discern between flavors simply via the shape of the dough. Smaller than most bulbous empanadas in town, these guys are a little bit smaller than most palms; two make for a nice snack while three or four could quantify a meal. Some of my favorites include the luscious Malbec beef, filled with carrots and onions for a sort of boeuf Bourguignon feel. The bacon-date-goat cheese is crazy good, tasting like an indulgent riff on the bacon-wrapped date cocktail party staple. Mushroom-thyme-blue cheese is a bit too aggressively heady for my liking, and ratatouille tends to be too watery and numbingly hot thanks to summer squash's knack for absorbing heat, but spinach-cheese and BBQ chicken are two more delicious standbys.
Whether I'm in need of a quick snack or a leisurely meal, 5411 Empanadas is a superb taste of Argentina/Epcot in Wicker Park.
- Matt Kirouac