As the name might suggest, The Empanadas House has a simple offering for its Champaign-Urbana patrons. No custom orders, no ambiguity: The two-month-old food truck serves empanadas only.
But its simplicity is also its greatest strength. With twenty different empanada varieties rotating throughout the week — all identically golden brown from the outside — it has already attracted regulars who are hooked on the filling.
The Empanadas House is the brainchild of Juan Luis Olarte, a native of Argentina. Olarte came to Champaign-Urbana for his wife’s post-doc in biochemistry, leaving behind two restaurants in his home country. He is now a manager of Crepe-De-Licious in the Illini Union food court, but he wanted to open his own food business. Enter empanadas.
“The empanada has a lot of advantages. It’s small — for a good price, you can get several with different fillings,” he said. “It’s easy to eat. You don’t need a fork or knife. It’s fast, because the empanadas are already cooked.”
Olarte was talking to me between customers last Friday from his parking spot at Mathews and Green. The truck has a spot on campus five days a week, weather permitting, and it serves the early lunch crowd in downtown Champaign two days a week. He also has late night hours on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, which he said have been successful.
Olarte’s empanadas, which are baked fresh every morning, span a wide range of traditions. His most popular are the recipes from the old country, courtesy of his grandmother: the chicken, beef, pork, and corn empanadas that are made with traditional Argentine spices. The latter, known as humita in Argentina, is one of his veggie options.
He also creates more non-traditional varieties, like the Indian-style Bombay Hot, the American barbecue pulled pork and, for those with a sweet tooth, the turtle cheesecake empanada.
The food truck’s website says it has “the best empanadas of the world,” which was hard for me to judge. The closest things I’d eaten to empanadas before trying Olarte’s were Italian calzones and Indian samosas — although according to the Wikipedia page for empanadas, all three of these turnover-style foods are actually historically related.
I tried the three empanadas that were left on the menu for the day: chicken, broccoli and cheese, and dolce de leche with walnuts. Despite that fact that I had nothing to compare them to, all three were objectively delicious. The chicken, one of Olarte’s from-the-old-country recipes, had a great flavor. According to the Facebook page, it’s a mix of chicken, veggies, and “Argentine spices,” which are savory but not overpowering. I alternated that with bites of the broccoli, which was basically like eating a bread pocket of broc-and-cheese soup and, therefore, genius in my book.
The dolce de leche was my dessert empanada, a sweet sauce that is as popular in Argentina as peanut butter is in the United States, Olarte said. Personally, I’m not sure I could handle a whole empanada filled with either peanut butter or dolce de leche. The first bite was heavenly, but by the last I was riding on an uncomfortably gooey sugar high. Some people are definitely into that; I am not. Proceed at your own risk.
But I will be going back to try the other seventeen varieties, and it seems that I’m not the only one who wants to. Olarte said he’s been happy with the success of his business so far.
“The hardest part was to know if the people would like this product because it’s new, it’s different,” Olarte said. "I’m not selling pizza or burgers.”
Photo courtesy of Juan Luis Olarte.