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I’ve always thought of empanadas as gut-torpedoes, and therefore avoided them. That bias may be based on eating one and grabbing for the Tums, or eating none and just assuming. I can’t recall.

Either way, it’s time to give this staple street food of the Latin diaspora a genuine chance. The simple pastry filled with savory stuff, fried or baked, date backs to the 1500s in the Galicia region of Spain.

Our two competitors, appropriately named: Mr. Empanada, with five locations in Tampa and one in St. Pete, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Its opponent, Julio’s Empanadas in Gulfport, is approaching one year in business.


With presumably the last cold front of the season moving in on Monday at 5:30, we walked through stiff winds to enter this no-frills place at MLK Street and 4th Avenue South in St. Pete.

As we perused the menu board, a man seated at a nearby table asked amiably, “First time here?”

“Yessir,” I replied. “The Buffalo Chicken is really good,” he said, and assured me that the flavor was not too strong. “Try the spinach one, too.” After exchanging some pleasantries, he left us with a last bit of advice. “They come out hot. Hot hot.”

A fleeting thought crossed my mind: “This must be Mr. Empanada. Wouldn’t it be cool if every location had one?”

We ordered three empanadas ($3.49 each): Buffalo Chicken and Bleu Cheese; Spinach, Artichoke and Cheese; and Beef and Cheese. We tacked on a bowl of Spanish Bean Soup ($4.99).


Each empanada came encased in a small paper bag, but we knew not to expect much of a reveal because every empanada ever made is brown and crescent-shaped. The soup came in a styrofoam bowl. Heeding the hot-hot warning, I gingerly cut each empanada in half with a plastic knife. The fillings oozed out, but not so much as to make a mess.

Texture and Taste

Our man Mr. Empanada’s recommendations were spot-on. The shredded Buffalo chicken was mildly flavored and melded nicely with the bleu cheese. The spinach, artichoke and (mozzarella) cheese made for a sumptuous combo, particularly because the spinach was tender, not stringy. (It burned my mouth, slightly.) The beef and (white American) cheese came in third, by quite a bit.

None of the empanadas were spicy, although they weren’t bland. I was concerned that the shell would be crunchy, but it was more the texture of pie crust — a bit crackly on the edges, softer next to the fillings.

The soup was legit, with a potent flavor of Spanish ham. We were in and out of Mr. Empanada (the restaurant) in 25 minutes.


We pulled up at Julio’s, a converted gas station at 49th Street and 22nd Avenue South, at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, the air crisp and fresh. The simple interior had a large drink cooler, a few tables and a counter at one end.

I was concerned at first because a whole bunch of empanadas were arrayed behind glass in a tiered warmer, suggesting that the server would simply pull one out and hand it over. That’s probably an option for someone on the go, but we chose from the menu and, thankfully, the kitchen made ours to order.

The empanadas come Regular or Grande. We ordered three Regulars: Beef ($5.25), Chicken ($5.25) and Roasted Vegetable ($4.95).


I was a tad surprised at how small these empanadas were — about the same size as those at Mr. Empanada, while costing at least 25% more. They looked more delicate, as well.

Texture and Taste

Who knew empanadas could be so different? Unlike Mr. Empanada’s, the fillings were well-defined, in large part because none of them contained cheese.

The tasty ground beef was chunky and mildly spiced. The chicken breast meat was moist and supple, the antithesis of pre-cooked “mall chicken.” The roasted vegetables consisted of large chunks of peppers, onion and zucchini.

The individual flavors in each of these empanadas stood out on their own. The crust was splendidly pie-like.

All of these elements were amplified by a terrific, house-made dipping sauce — medium hot, with hefty chunks of onion.

And the Winner of the Got a Lotta Empanadas Taste-Off Is …


I enjoyed both restaurants’ versions, but Julio’s empanadas had a more artisan touch.

Bonnie summed up the experience when she mused, “I like empanadas.”

So do I.

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