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Empanada Spot stars in Chula Vista Michelin – who?

Counter shop shows value of doing one thing, really well

A collection of braided, near-perfect empanadas from upstart Empanada Spot
A collection of braided, near-perfect empanadas from upstart Empanada Spot

The Michelin Guide has cast its latest cursory glance at our city, and a handful of quite good restaurants across town are now basking in attentions bestowed by a car tire manufacturer. I know it’s meant to be a big deal, and I’m truly glad more local establishments have been deemed worthy, but Michelin’s cartoon tire-man mascot literally appears on the book’s cover. I’d expect people to be skeptical if, say, the Pillsbury Doughboy came to town to tell us which craft breweries to admire.

Place

The Empanada Spot

1223 3rd Ave C-1, Chula Vista

Anyhow, while reservations become harder to come by at newly starred (and “bib gourmand”-ed”) restaurants, I’m going to steer you in a different direction. To Chula Vista, and to a small, generically named counter shop just getting started in a nondescript strip mall, too far south on Third Avenue to be part of downtown Chula Vista’s resurgence.

Empanada Spot pretty much just does the one thing: makes empanadas. It’s not the only local business to go this route, and frankly, empanada-making cultures aren’t the only ones to make the whole savory hand pie concept work. Samosas, pierogis, Cornish pasties, calzones, knishes, and any number of dumpling traditions have long proven that folding meat, cheese, and/or vegetables into a pocket of cooked dough is a relatively easy way to please just about everybody. How complicated can it be if Hot Pockets accomplishes the same thing with a cardboard sleeve and a microwave?

Don't underestimate this obscure counter shop in Chula Vista.

But even the Pillsbury Doughboy could tell you that not all turnovers are made the same. And this humble shop makes the best empanadas we’ve seen in San Diego.

It caught me off guard how good. I pulled into Empanada Spot’s parking lot with something of a “let’s get this over with” attitude. My expectation was to gorge on all the empanadas I could eat, call it a perk of the job, then write a few hundred words — maybe about a convenient, new cheap eats option for denizens of the South Bay. Or, if it proved too mediocre for that, cut my losses, write nothing, and pretend I never heard of the place.

Hey, kind of like the Michelin Guide used to do with San Diego!

Castilla de puerco — a filling of pork rib meat and roasted poblano pepper

But the folks behind Empanada Spot didn’t open during a pandemic behind mediocre. Their success starts with a perfect, fried pie crust: flaky, light, and crispy at the edges, yet moist and chewy where it meets the filling.

Priced at $3.25 apiece, empanada options start with “the OG,” which offers a somewhat traditional picadillo filling of beef, olives, and potatoes. There’s chipotle chicken, a pizza-inspired pepperoni with marinara, shrimp and cheese, bean and cheese, chicharrons, and the vegetarian rajas, which adds sauteed onions and corn to cheese and roasted chilis.

It’s tough to go wrong ordering them all — especially with a pair of outstanding salsas to spice them up. But if you want to make sure you go right, make sure to include the costilla de puerco: pork rib and roasted poblano chili. I could spend 40 bucks on a dozen of those, skip the dessert, and be just fine.

That said, a peanut butter and jelly empanada proved to me dessert empanadas also do the trick. You can get one with nutella alone or paired with bananas or peanut butter, along with options dubbed apple pie, strawberries and cream, or churro cheesecake.

Real talk? Some might not consider this guidebook stuff — counter service empanadas don’t readily compare to exquisite sushi or a prix fixe menu brought to your table by servers who can regale you with tales of elevated cooking techniques and desirable ingredients. And in California at least, Michelin doesn’t seem interested in recommending anything as pedestrian as empanadas to high falutin tourists who would only gaze upon San Diego through the lens of its guide.

But for those of us living and eating here, who enjoy a little diversity and a little value, and don’t require our street food to be pedigreed, Empanada Spot makes an excellent new addition to the local restaurant landscape.

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The new game in plant-based meats is pork… and imitation spiced ham
A collection of braided, near-perfect empanadas from upstart Empanada Spot
A collection of braided, near-perfect empanadas from upstart Empanada Spot

The Michelin Guide has cast its latest cursory glance at our city, and a handful of quite good restaurants across town are now basking in attentions bestowed by a car tire manufacturer. I know it’s meant to be a big deal, and I’m truly glad more local establishments have been deemed worthy, but Michelin’s cartoon tire-man mascot literally appears on the book’s cover. I’d expect people to be skeptical if, say, the Pillsbury Doughboy came to town to tell us which craft breweries to admire.

Place

The Empanada Spot

1223 3rd Ave C-1, Chula Vista

Anyhow, while reservations become harder to come by at newly starred (and “bib gourmand”-ed”) restaurants, I’m going to steer you in a different direction. To Chula Vista, and to a small, generically named counter shop just getting started in a nondescript strip mall, too far south on Third Avenue to be part of downtown Chula Vista’s resurgence.

Empanada Spot pretty much just does the one thing: makes empanadas. It’s not the only local business to go this route, and frankly, empanada-making cultures aren’t the only ones to make the whole savory hand pie concept work. Samosas, pierogis, Cornish pasties, calzones, knishes, and any number of dumpling traditions have long proven that folding meat, cheese, and/or vegetables into a pocket of cooked dough is a relatively easy way to please just about everybody. How complicated can it be if Hot Pockets accomplishes the same thing with a cardboard sleeve and a microwave?

Don't underestimate this obscure counter shop in Chula Vista.

But even the Pillsbury Doughboy could tell you that not all turnovers are made the same. And this humble shop makes the best empanadas we’ve seen in San Diego.

It caught me off guard how good. I pulled into Empanada Spot’s parking lot with something of a “let’s get this over with” attitude. My expectation was to gorge on all the empanadas I could eat, call it a perk of the job, then write a few hundred words — maybe about a convenient, new cheap eats option for denizens of the South Bay. Or, if it proved too mediocre for that, cut my losses, write nothing, and pretend I never heard of the place.

Hey, kind of like the Michelin Guide used to do with San Diego!

Castilla de puerco — a filling of pork rib meat and roasted poblano pepper

But the folks behind Empanada Spot didn’t open during a pandemic behind mediocre. Their success starts with a perfect, fried pie crust: flaky, light, and crispy at the edges, yet moist and chewy where it meets the filling.

Priced at $3.25 apiece, empanada options start with “the OG,” which offers a somewhat traditional picadillo filling of beef, olives, and potatoes. There’s chipotle chicken, a pizza-inspired pepperoni with marinara, shrimp and cheese, bean and cheese, chicharrons, and the vegetarian rajas, which adds sauteed onions and corn to cheese and roasted chilis.

It’s tough to go wrong ordering them all — especially with a pair of outstanding salsas to spice them up. But if you want to make sure you go right, make sure to include the costilla de puerco: pork rib and roasted poblano chili. I could spend 40 bucks on a dozen of those, skip the dessert, and be just fine.

That said, a peanut butter and jelly empanada proved to me dessert empanadas also do the trick. You can get one with nutella alone or paired with bananas or peanut butter, along with options dubbed apple pie, strawberries and cream, or churro cheesecake.

Real talk? Some might not consider this guidebook stuff — counter service empanadas don’t readily compare to exquisite sushi or a prix fixe menu brought to your table by servers who can regale you with tales of elevated cooking techniques and desirable ingredients. And in California at least, Michelin doesn’t seem interested in recommending anything as pedestrian as empanadas to high falutin tourists who would only gaze upon San Diego through the lens of its guide.

But for those of us living and eating here, who enjoy a little diversity and a little value, and don’t require our street food to be pedigreed, Empanada Spot makes an excellent new addition to the local restaurant landscape.

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