Somehow over the last four years I slept on Lakeview’s postage stamp-sized Cafe Tola. Maybe I just blinked and missed the tiny, 400-square-foot empanada emporium on the Southport corridor. Or maybe it’s because the neighborhood isn’t one normally associated with credible Mexican food. But the little place turns out some 700 of the savory stuffed pastries every day, co-owner Victoria Salamanca told DNAInfo in July. And when Salamanca and her husband, Gerardo, branched out onto hot dog holy ground—the Avondale space formerly occupied by Hot Doug’s—it was time to reckon with the couple’s nascent empanada empire. (The Salamancas are in the process of opening a third, even larger location on Southport.)
I wouldn’t have guessed it possible, but the Salamanca family have managed to crank up the kitsch level of the space far beyond anything Doug Sohn dreamed up, with glass display cases packed with Japanese robots and monsters, Frida Kahlo art, Dia de los Muertos-style skull imagery, a working Gorf arcade machine, and an exterior mural that manages to incorporate Yoda, E.T., and Transformers character Snarl.
It’s a diverting environment to take in these empanadas, some half dozen each day, none of which were duplicated both times I’ve been in. Some are better than others, of course. I like none better than the simple version with refried beans and gooey melted cheese. The piquant chicken salsa verde bests the dull chicken mole, while the chunky egg-and-chorizo outperforms the dry egg-and-cheese. I’ve enjoyed plenty of the others: rajas, birria, spinach-ricotta, ropa vieja, and more. The pastry is consistently wonderful, tightly crimped, blistered, and flaky; it’s light but sturdy, and more than capable of holding the sometimes dense fillings together.
Tola 2 also features a remarkably diverse lineup of caffeinated beverages (cold brew, coconut iced coffee, spicy mocha, masala chai) and an expanded menu of tacos, tortas, burritos, and even a queso flameado, a kind of queso fundido doused with tequila and set ablaze. I’m still working my way through all of these delights, but I can say the torta al pastor—even though it’s missing the requisite pineapple—is legit, carved right off the trompo, and the taco de pancita features a thick slab of pork belly smothered in beans and pickled cabbage that gives Big Star’s taco de panza a run for its money.
Cafe Tola Loncheria y Tacos, 3324 N. California, 773-293-6346