queso empanada from don pablo's kitchen
The queso empanada at Don Pablo's Kitchen & Bakeshop Credit: Courtesy Pablo Soto

Among the poems about common things Pablo Neruda wrote during his lifetime are a number of odes to food: “Ode to the Artichoke,” “Ode to Tomatoes,” “Ode to Conger Chowder.” But somehow, the Chilean Nobel laureate forgot to write an ode to one of his country’s most ubiquitous signature dishes.

Not only are baked and fried empanadas everywhere in Chile, they’re all over South America—and all over the world, really.

Under various names and in different shapes and sizes from the Philippines to Lithuania, Wales to Uzbekistan, a good variety of them have been well represented in Chicago too, particularly in Lakeview along Southport Avenue, where the Argentinian empanada holds sway at places like El Mercado Food Mart and 5411 Empanadas. We have Colombian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Venezuelan empanadas too, but the Chilean empanada hasn’t been spotted in the wild since the 2012 demise of Irving Park’s Rapa Nui.

That all changed in May when Pablo Soto took his obsession with his home country’s signature hand pie and brought it to life in the form of Don Pablo’s Kitchen & Bakeshop, a virtual, soon-to-be-brick-and-mortar Uptown Chilean restaurant.

Soto, a Santiago-born, former sports broadcaster (Radio Arte, Telemundo, Fox Deportes), along with his wife Julie Morrow-Soto, didn’t name the business after himself, but rather for the country’s most famous historical figure who wasn’t a murderous dictator. The poet’s conspicuous silence on the subject of empanadas hasn’t overshadowed the piemaker’s admiration for his championship of the working class, particularly fishermen and cooks.

Don Pablo’s Kitchen & Bakeshop

Soto was working for Yelp and his wife as a bilingual teacher’s aide when the pandemic forced an existential reevaluation of life priorities. “I realized it was my time to start something,” he says. “I said, ‘We gotta do it now. If we have 10 to 15 years of work left in our systems, then we gotta do it for ourselves.’” This led to a three-week intensive course of empanada studies last January, when Soto flew back to Santiago and began daily sessions under the tutelage of his Aunt Natasha, the keeper of his family’s kitchen traditions. She, in turn, introduced him to a friend, one of the owners of Los Hornitos in a suburb outside of the city. “He cooks in mud ovens,” says Soto. “It’s like a hole in the wall, but the guy has a line of cars outside every day. He’s not the type of person that has social media, but if you ask, the locals will tell you exactly where he is.”

It was here that Soto picked up a few “secrets,” he says, that allowed him to perfect his dough, one key part of what distinguishes Chilean empanadas from the rest, and one of which he’ll allow is adding white wine to the mix. “The acidity keeps the dough from spoiling. The dough can be very strong in your stomach too. The wine gives it a balance.” Soto also made trips to coastal Valparaíso and studied the light, deep fried, seafood-stuffed empanadas of Los Roldán, another storied piemaker.

“It’s a lot of things you’d never think about, like how you even cut the meat. How thick it can be. How thin it can be. When you chew on the empanada, little details that make a big difference. I was able to learn that there.”

Back home he practiced in his Glenview kitchen until the time was right to assemble a focus group: the same Chilean expats he bonded with when he immigrated 25 years ago. “I lined them up and I was like, ‘OK, I need you to tell me from the bottom of your hearts. If it sucks you gotta tell me because nobody else is gonna know better than you guys.’ We had a standing ovation.”

Julie Morrow-Soto and Pablo Soto from Don Pablo's Kitchen & Bakeshop
Julie Morrow-Soto and Pablo Soto with their insulated delivery van
Credit: Courtesy Pablo Soto

The couple launched Don Pablo’s in May, and Soto says he’s never worked harder. He’s up each day at 5 AM, taking inventory, shopping, rolling dough, and preparing fillings. At 11 AM they start taking orders via their website, and begin stuffing, folding, and cooking empanadas as each ticket comes in, available for pick up or delivered via their brand new insulated cargo van.

One of the other key differentials in Chilean empanadas is their larger size relative to their South American counterparts. This is best illustrated by the clásica, which Soto compares to the hamburger in terms of its ubiquity in Chile. It’s the sole baked empanada on Don Pablo’s menu, a hefty, buttery, flaky hot pocket encasing sliced sirloin, hard boiled eggs, and olives, seasoned with merken, a spice blend with chiles, cumin, coriander, and salt that Soto’s mother sends from her local street market in Santiago.

The crimped, blistered, and fried empanadas on the menu aren’t quite as supersized, but still formidable. The napolitana is a kind of calzone oozing with melted mozzarella and gouda, while the poeta is packed with snappy shrimp and corn. The Greek tragedy is stuffed with artichoke hearts, mushrooms, and kalamata olives, and the pluma bulges with pulled chicken and basil. There’s a sweet, cinnamon-apple stuffed empanada (the granny), as well as delicate alfajores, powdered sugar-dusted, caramel sandwich cookies nearly as common in South America as empanadas.

Apart from a vivid green chimichurri, that’s the focus so far, though there are occasional specials like a limited edition (as long as corn is in season) pastel de choclo, a baked corn pie layered with sirloin, chicken, olives, and eggs. That’s a hint at Soto’s range, which will expand once they open their storefront near the corner of Argyle and Sheridan in October. Once installed, they’re planning to introduce more seafood-based empanadas such as the Isla Negra (named for Neruda’s seaside home), stuffed with a bouillabaisse of whitefish, clams, mussels, scallops, and shrimp. There will be ceviche and side salads, along with Chilean soups like the corn-based mazamorra.

In the meantime, they’ll be taking preorders and popping up at Fiestas Patrias, the local celebration of Chilean Independence Day at Forest Glen Woods on September 18. It’s a day Chileans historically celebrate with empanadas, likely something even Neruda did in his day.