The Portland food cart scene offers nearly every lunch option imaginable, from Translyvanian food to Paleo bowls, but it's damn hard to beat the quality, price, and portability of that beloved street food classic, the empanada. The following list is by no means definitive of every empanada option from a Portland cart, but it does showcase four different styles from four different regions, each one distinct in their own unique way. To the pastries!
On PDX's Empanada's cart logo, a benevolent cartoon sun grins down at passing customers, much like cart owner Ines Beron, who is all smiles, too. Beron and her husband, Walter, originally started serving their flavor-packed empanadas at events for the human rights office where they worked. Their Uruguayan empanadas resemble traditional Argentine versions with their glossy egg wash finish, but unlike the other empanadas on this list, they're baked, not fried. "People have begun baking them instead of frying in Uruguay because it's healthier," says Ines. While all the menu options are flavorful, the Beef and Raisin ($3.50), which combines tender ground beef with sweet pockets of melty raisins, salty olives, and three kinds of pepper for plenty of heat, is definitely the star of the cart.
Though this cart is popular for its french fry-stuffed, nap-inducing Peruvian sandwiches, their empanadas should not be overlooked. In the mere six months La Sangucheria has been open, Le Cordon Bleu-trained owner Maribel Castaman has already earned the Best Overall Food award at Eat Mobile, and managed to attract local Portlanders and Peruvian transplants alike. This option is likely the best deal on this list, since the price includes three generously sized empanadas served in a small tray. Unlike other empanada styles, Castaman doesn't use a flour-based dough, instead opting for wonton wrappers to make the crust, which puff up in the fryer, adding a cirpsy, croissant-like effect. Make sure to grab a fork, since these Creamy Chicken empanadas ($4), which are shaped more like rectangles than half-moons, are adorned with raw red onions, crema fresca, and drizzles of vibrant green salsa.
Sold from a crimson cart specializing in Colombian cuisine, these empanadas ($2) are unique because of their thin, slightly crispy cornmeal crust. Owners Elizabeth Agudelo and Fernando Montagut came from Colombia just two years ago, and with them they brought recipes for naturally gluten-free Colombian arepas and empanadas, which actually share the same dough, but produce completely different dishes. While their arepas are pan-fried and more akin to a pancake, El Pilón's empanada crust is rolled out thinner, and given a quick dip in the frier for crunch. Choose from fillings like meatloaf with sauce, which is a mixture of shredded beef, tomato, capers, and garlic, or try the simple and moist shredded chicken. On a hot day, wash your empanada down with a salpicon ($2.50), a Colombian fruit cocktail that's sweet and refreshing.
If you happen to plan a dim sum adventure at SE 82nd avenue's popular Ocean City, make sure to decline those last pork buns to save room for an empanada dessert at nearby La Autentica. The covered cart is just a few minutes away, with a handful of picnic tables for al fresco snacking. The Salvadoran Empanadas de Platano ($3.50) are the only empanada available on the menu, which otherwise features arepas, burritos, and tacos, but let that be the hint that you're about taste something special. The crust is made with mashed, lightly pan-fried plantains, while inside there's a custardy crema filling. The finished product is dipped into granulated sugar, lending the whole thing a doughnut-esque touch, which makes them ideal for dunking into La Autentica's chocolatey horchata.
La Autentica: 2922 SE 82nd Ave (map); 503-739-1120