Who doesn’t love empanadas? Certainly not someone who has discovered Lito’s Empanadas, a well-kept secret on Clark St. Empanada-expert Carlos Escalante earned his degree in business administration in Colombia and worked as a plant manager in Ohio before launching Lito’s two years ago. He took the time to talk with Funsherpa about South American food, Colombian slang, and, of course, his unusual empanadas...
F: What is about an empanada? Why did you decide to build a business around it?
Well I’m from Colombia, where empanadas are really popular. I’ve always wanted to have my own business and knew empanadas could be a good idea. When I moved here I didn’t have enough money; I didn’t have the credit history to just apply for a loan. Around 2006 I started making them for my wife’s family – she’s from Wisconsin – and for my friends here. People liked them, so one day we said, “Why don’t we open an empanada place?” It took me seven years, but we finally opened in 2007.
F: What do you think of Chicago’s South American cuisine?
I’ve been to a couple of Colombian places like Las Tablas, and they are really good! But there wasn’t a take-out place like this in Chicago-
F: What is your favorite empanada?
That’s a tough one: I would have to choose between a few. We just have ten, but I love the Hawaiian one.
(We do too.)
F: If you could add another empanada to the menu of ten, what would it be?
I’m actually working on it right now! I want to add one with shrimp and another with chorizo. There are so many things you can put in an empanada-
F: You said empanadas are popular in Colombia – are they usually associated with a particular meal? Or can they eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? (We hope so)
Where I come from, they are really popular for breakfast. Some places are only open from 6am until 8 or 9 when they sell out, and then they are done for the day. That’s just for breakfast.
It’s not popular for lunch. Later in the day, that’s when people start looking for empanadas…
F: What is the most empanadas you’ve seen anyone eat in one sitting?
(Can’t say we blame them)
F: What other cuisine do you enjoy around Chicago?
I love hamburgers – that’s my favorite American dish. I’m happy at any place that has hamburgers.
F: We heard you previously worked in the auto industry – what made you decide to open a restaurant?
I was the plant manager for an auto-parts plant for five years: I started in Toledo, Ohio back in 2000. The owner decided to open a shop here in Chicago, and he gave me the opportunity to move here and be plant manager. So yeah, I was doing something totally different.
F: Why did you decide to move from Colombia to Chicago?
I finished a degree in business administration in Colombia in December 1999, and I had a friend living in Toledo, Ohio. I didn’t have many options in my country, so he said, “Well, why don’t you come up here and see what you can find?” I came to Toledo and ten days later met the owner of the auto-parts supplier in church. At the time, he was just looking for someone to sweep the floors, take the garbage out, load and unload trucks – I eventually showed him I could help manage people and assembly lines.
A year later he decided to expand to Chicago. By that time, I was bored, frustrated, and thinking of going back to Colombia. Toledo, Ohio is a really small town with not many things to do. So it was good timing when he said, “Well do you want to move to Chicago?”
F: Why did you choose to stay in Chicago and start a business here?
I love this city. They have everything here, and it’s not that expensive to live in, if you’re smart. I don’t complain about the winters much; it’s nice having four seasons – you just have to enjoy them.
F: What is your favorite Colombian Slang expression?
‘Tenaz’ – I don’t even think it’s in the dictionary, but we use it a lot in Colombia. When you’ve been in a tough situation, you say, “Tenaz!”
F: What is the rough English translation of “tenaz”?
When you say, “Really?!” [incredulously]
F: What is the future of Lito’s Empanadas? Any expansion plans?
Yeah! When we decided we wanted to open, the first step was just to find a place. We found a place; we signed a lease; and that means you have to do it. To open the shop was really tough; to keep it running – that’s another thing. Now that it’s running, I have to go and find the next one…