By Sunny Angulo
With a mother from the bustling capital of Santiago and a father from the coastal garden commune of Viña del Mar, Paula Tejeda is a wholehearted Chilean, with the perfect blend of sharp wit and breezy passion. She also happens to be one hell of a chef, and the proud owner of the latest incarnation of the Mission’s beloved Chile Lindo.
Paula’s been around the Mission since the early ’80s, when she began to forge community ties through her music producing and writing. As the oldest child in her family, she also learned to cook at an early age for her younger siblings. Her knack for churning out delectable goodies found a perfect pairing in the marriage to her ex-husband, Dennis. In 1995, the dynamic duo took over Chile Lindo’s closet-sized empanada factory in the Redstone Building on 16th, and a local favorite was born. Dennis developed a secret recipe for the thin Chilean-style pastry dough, and Paula supplied the distinct stuffing mixtures. Since then, Paula has parted ways with Dennis (“he’s still a very good friend”) and Chile Lindo has morphed several times. This past Thursday was Paula’s grand opening of a new outpost for empanada lovers: a satellite Chile Lindo on the Mission’s crackin’ 22nd street.
“Chile Lindo is actually sort of a franchise operation, at this point,” Paula joked on Thursday. “Well, I’m just one of the most recent owners out of a bunch of interesting Chileans. Senora Liverona officially named it in 1973, though I’ve heard rumors that there was even a lady before her. Then came Angelica Oviedo, and then I took it over. So, Chileans actually have deep roots in the community.” Um, true that. Which is why I decided to bring a Chilean with me to Thursday’s festivities – you know, for the street cred. (Enrique was swooning all over the place as soon as he smelled the ahi pebre, pushover.)
Paula (aka “The Empanada Lady”) is probably best known with the 22nd Street crowd for regularly hitting up Dolores Park and the Make-Out Room with her magic wicker basket of grub. (Nothing takes the edge off of some heavy dance floor action like a toasty empanada…) Her new outpost keeps the favorite staples of her mobile business: her classic beef empanada and her vegetarian offering, the jalapeño and cheese empanada. (Sorry, vegans.) At $5.00 and $4.00 respectively, they’re about double what’d you pay on the street in Chile, but hey, you ain’t in Chile, now are you? Paula does sweeten the deal when you order a dozen, though, by throwing in two freebies. Think on it.
“You know, the empanada actually goes back to the Muslims and the Arab world. When Chile was colonized by Spain, that’s how people survived, off of empanadas. The Moors were in Europe for 500 to 800 years, and empanadas were a staple of life – the Spanish moors brought them to Chile,” explained Paula. Hey, all the pilgrims brought to the New World was smallpox, so if you’re going to be a colonizer, empanadas seem a more thoughtful way to go.
My token Chilean friend, Enrique, was ALL about the lore of the empanada. “It’s like the hamburger of Chile, the Sunday delicacy. It’s a tradition to eat empanadas before an exam, to bring you good luck. I ate them everyday in law school.” Dang, heifer! I cannot vouch that empanadas will bring you good luck in the boardroom or the bedroom, but I can vouch that Paula’s are the real deal – extremely delicious.
The classic beef pastries (or empanadas de pino) have hand-ground spiced beef, a loooot of onions, raisins, a piece of hard-boiled egg, and olives complete with pits. Luckily, Paula plays it safe on the pit front and does without. She came up with the recipe for her queso empanadas herself. “Chilean food is actually not really that spicy, so the jalapeño is unique. I wanted to give it a little kick.” Chilean empanadas have a distinct folding pattern that signals the general content inside. The savory beef looks kind of like a stealth fighter jet when it’s wrapped up, and Paula’s queso option is crimped into the half-circle form that reminds me of my mom’s Mexican fruit empanadas. Chile Lindo is also currently serving wine and sangria from Esperpento next door. After several glasses of wine, Enrique generously gave me some vigorous sketches of the patented Chilean folding technique, just so I wouldn’t get it wrong. Thanks, Enrique:
What else is brewing for the Empanada Lady? She’s applying to La Cocina to get the support necessary to expand the business even further, including $50,000 to convert the tiny closet in the Redstone building into a fabulous espresso bar. “Expect big things at the 16th Street location. I’m raising the funds to build a complete Chilean delicatessen and café. We’re going to be serving Pastel de Choclo, completos [a Chilean specialty that combines hotdog, avocado, tomatoes and mayonnaise], and churrascos [Chilean sandwiches].” In the meantime, she’ll continue making her famous empanadas in small batches out of the Redstone Building and hawking them out of the café on 22nd Street.
The café itself is definitely the place to be on a nice summer evening. The crowd overflowing onto the sidewalk is like a who’s who of the latin Mission scene : Leila Navarette, co-owner of Radio Habana Social Club around the corner; Alejandro Murguia, a well-known chicano author and SF State professor; musicians from Noches Bohemias, artists from Mission Cultural Center and expats from Café La Boheme on 24th. The seating was limited, but people crammed in on top of each other, even stealing seats from Esperpento next door. The ratio of passionate discourse was directly proportionate to the amount of sangria being passed around.
Enrique was especially excited that the Mission would finally have a real Chilean restaurant. When I asked if he was sure that Chile Lindo was the only game in town, fellow revelers jumped in from all sides:
“Yes, this is the only Chilean restaurant!”
“Chile Lindo is helping the Chilean community! This is it, can you believe it, no other Chilean restaurant in the Mission neighborhood?!”
With that, Enrique added, “AND we’re Number #2 under Brazil! We’re going to make it above everyone!”
The World Cup reference sent the diners into a fresh furor.
One woman across from me, Patricia Alvarez-Perez, wasn’t as exuberant as her companions. I asked her if she wasn’t excited that Chile was doing so well in the qualifying games? A dejected look came across her face.
“I only have cable, but not the Dish!” she exclaimed in Spanish. Bummer.
Thankfully, at least she had an “autentico” Chilean empanada. When asked why she was out chowing in support of Paula, she responded, “Well, she’s very strong, very persistent. And I have to support what she’s doing for the Chilean community – empanadas are just the beginning!” she answered. That was definitely the consensus with the crowd: that just by serving empanadas to the masses, Paula was bringing the community together in some small way. She bustled about and wove through the crowd in her signature red jacket, attending to every last detail and chattering with about seven people at once, including me.
“This is what I wanted. It’s up to each individual to give pride and integrity to their community. It’s very hard, but you do it. You find a way.” Paula paused from wrapping up to-go empanadas long enough to share some of her own Mission community favorites. “La Cocina, of course, is great. I’ve been working with the Mission Asset Fund for a long time, and they’re amazing. Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, also amazing. You know who else? I love [local muralist] Mona Caron. I love the work she is doing.”
And what about the Tamale Lady? Any competition there?
“Oh, no, I love her. Virginia is a good friend. I love the Tamale Lady. And I love being the Empanada Lady.” Apparently Paula loves everybody. Now if only the Tamale Lady would open up a bar…
For orders: #(415) 642-8887
Hours: Redstone Bldg – Saturdays, 10:00am-5:00pm
22nd Street Café – Thurs-Sun, 6:00pm-11:30pm
(website coming soon…)