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Step Aside, Cronuts: Meet the “Empanoli” Found at Chicago Farmers Markets

Meredith Francis
"Empanolis" on a baking sheet.
The "empanoli" is similar to an empanada, but is assembled like a ravioli. Image: The Original Empanoli

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In a culinary scene as big as Chicago, there are all kinds of creative food concoctions out there. Chances are, you’ve heard of the cronut—a combination of a croissant and donut. But what about an empanoli, which merges elements of an empanada and a ravioli?

Alex Moncada, founder and owner of The Original Empanoli, created the hybrid, gluten-free hand pie and sells them at farmers markets around Chicago, including the farmers markets in Logan Square, Lincoln Square, Horner Park, Ravenswood, and Park Ridge.

The empanoli might sound like an unusual combination, but then, Moncada doesn’t have a typical background for this kind of work. He’s a self-described “finance person,” and used to own a small mortgage company and flip houses.

“I have absolutely zero background in baking,” he says, “other than making Nestle Tollhouse cookies.” Moncada grew up in a family that loved to cook. Both of his parents were born in Mexico, but their love of cuisine had an international flare.

“My mom was very passionate about Julia Child, and [the cooking shows on] WTTW were on regular rotation in our household,” Moncada says (His words, not ours!). One of his mom’s specialties was an “absolutely delicious” fried picadillo empanada, which was filled with a mixture of beef and potato. He always had a craving for them, but celiac disease and high cholesterol prevented him from reaching for the empanadas of his childhood once he was an adult.

To account for his dietary needs, he wanted to make a gluten-free version that he could bake instead of fry, but it took him several months to get it right. First, he tried making the empanada dough with corn flour, but those didn’t bake well. He tried different types of masa and vegan flour, too.

“I wasn't getting the right results. It just all came down to experimentation over and over and over, and it was a real trainwreck. So I gave up for about seven months,” he says. But he kept trying after that break—just another “30, 40, or 50” trials—and after three years he finally got the dough for the crust right.

Because his dough recipe is gluten-free and made by hand, it doesn’t quite have the structure that makes it easy to manipulate like regular dough, making it hard to create the crimped edge commonly seen in empanadas.

“It has the exterior and the texture of an empanada, but it has a shape and is assembled just like a ravioli with a cutter,” Moncada says. And so the empanoli was born. He officially launched his corporation, Papole Foods, in 2020, and began selling his empanolis the following spring. His company also makes and sells gluten-free baking mixes.

Various empanolis on baking sheets in an ovenThe filling of an empanoli determines its shape. Image: The Original Empanoli

Much like a traditional empanada, the filling is where there is fun to be had. He has experimented with all kinds of fillings, but settled on a rotation of roughly eight to ten, many of which are inspired by his mother’s recipes. For example, he makes picadillo, chicken mole verde, pinto beans and cheese, and a ranchero egg and cheese with scallions and red pepper. He also makes a sweet hand pie, with a honeycrisp apple and cinnamon filling. The fillings also dictate the shapes, as each empanoli is shaped a little differently.

“The fillings are all based on probably 50-, 55-year-old recipes from my mother, and those were tested out probably hundreds of times,” Moncada says. “She had a really great touch of flavors.”

It’s a lot of work. A few times per week, he makes a 40-pound batch of dough that must rest overnight. Because it’s assembled like a ravioli, it requires two discs of dough (empanadas use just one, folded over on itself), each of which is weighed and then pressed in a tortilla press. There may be hundreds or thousands in a given day. He did this mostly by himself in his first year, with his partner, Paige, helping him out when she could. Now he has a few people helping him, but he’s hoping to grow his staff.

As Moncada looks to the future, hoping to expand his business and sell frozen empanolis in stores, he looks back to his mother’s love of cooking in the kitchen. She is in assisted living now, but she has tried Moncada’s empanolis.

“She loves them. She especially loves the chicken mole verde and the picadillo beef,” Moncada says, adding with a chuckle, “I think that she gets a little kick out of it.”