Sitting on a stool in front of Chile Lindo on 16th Street, watching the neighbors stop by for a snack and a listening to them chat in Spanish, I felt for a moment like I was in another country — Chile, specifically. That got me thinking: Is there anywhere in the world that doesn’t have a version of stuffed dough? Call it a pierogi, a pupusa, a potsticker, a pasty or a calzone and I’m instantly hooked.
My love for anything and everything turnover-esque runs deep — that first bite, when you expose the secret interior pocket of flavor with your teeth as the steam rises up and coats your face, can be akin to a religious experience.
Empanadas are a world of stuffed dough I’ve only recently began to happily chip away at. You’ll find as many variations of this dish as there are countries, states, cities, villages, and grandmothers in all of Central and South America, and my visits to Chile Lindo, a charming hole-in-the-wall in the Mission, have been my first experiences with the Chilean version of this staple.
While most of the empanadas I’ve had are fried, these Chilean pockets are baked. The difference is an intriguing one, which I pondered as I chewed on bits of golden dough dipped in pebre, a zippy salsa-like condiment rife with cilantro and onion. The dough itself becomes more front-and-center when it’s baked, unable to rely on its reaction with a vat of bubbling fat to give it substance.
The dough here is hearty with a chewy bite, not flaky or ethereal by any means, yet not too heavy, and topped with a tanned sheen from egg wash. It’s rustic and practical, a working man’s crust, easy to hold and perfect for encompassing mountains of piping hot fillings.
At Chile Lindo, these fillings are quite traditional, starting with the Empanada de Pino, a mixture of ground Niman Ranch beef cooked with onions and subtly spiced with paprika and cumin. Slices of hard-boiled egg, whole black olives, and plump raisins spike each bite with a different combination of briny, soft and sweet. The filling is reminiscent of Spain and North Africa, speaking to the long and storied history of the empanada, a dish that’s crossed oceans, seas and continents. There’s a pretty decent vegan version too, with Yves meatless ground beef and no egg.
The Pollo empanada is another riff on the classic, replacing the beef with roasted Mary’s chicken and trading black olives for green ones. A strong punch of black pepper in this filling seemed oddly out of balance until I poured on the pebre, which brightened the whole thing up.
I keep coming back to the Jamon y Queso, a simple yet sublime pocket of melted mozzarella and cheddar studded with bits of salty ham. What elevates this item beyond just a ham and cheese hot pocket (not that there’s anything wrong with that) is the delightfully slow-building jalapeòo heat that permeates every bite. The cheese oozes into every corner of dough, making each mouthful a stringy symphony of fat, salt and fire.
Chile Lindo has coffee and sweet stuff, too, like the Torta de Mil Hojas, a cake layered with dulce de leche and coated in ground walnuts. It’s tasty, but the savory empanadas are the real magic here.
Location: 2944 16th St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 621-6108, www.chilelindo.com
Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays
Recommended dishes: Jamon y queso empanada ($7.50), Empanada de Pino ($7.50)
Credit cards: Not accepted
Reservations: Not accepted