The neighborhood of San Miguel Chapultepec sits on the west end of Mexico City’s hipster corridor that runs east through Condesa and on to Roma. In the last decade, these neighborhoods have flowered with bars and restaurants fed by tourists and young people eager to impress.
The corridor also had the terrible misfortune of being in the crosshairs of the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck the city shortly after 1 p.m. on September 19, 2017, toppling familiar buildings and sending all pretense crashing to the floor.
In the aftermath, many businesses remained shuttered as affluent residents fled to safer ground, often with young children in tow, leaving behind luxury apartments now cracked and broken. Those restaurants that survived are testaments to the community’s tenacity and solidarity born from that tragedy.
It is a wonder, then, when you stumble across a place to eat that has survived such a catastrophe not once but twice, as is the case with Los Abuelos Empanadas in San Miguel Chapultepec just across Circuito Interior, the looping freeway, from La Condesa.
“We opened in 1984. We survived the earthquake of 1985, and we survived the earthquake of 2017,” Antonia Bailón, the eatery’s titular grandmother and co-founder proudly told us on a recent visit. The 1985 temblor she’s referring to also happened to occur on September 19, with a death toll north of 10,000, although the exact number is still unknown.
Many of the vegetables used in the empanadas are grown in the family’s garden.
On the day of our visit, we found her standing quietly in the small stand. Over the course of the afternoon, we saw her instructing her small staff, chatting with customers and carefully watching over her family’s little empire of 34 years.
Los Abuelos (“The Grandparents”), as it’s often shortened to, continues to serve the public much as it always has – a lean, mean survival machine, tucked inauspiciously beneath the eaves of a boxy supermarket just north of the historic Ermita Building.
Like so many of the best spots in Mexico City, Los Abuelos is an unassuming place that you might miss if you blink. The stand with no chairs is known only by reputation, and their focus is solely on getting their product – in this case, empanadas – right every time, every day, for years on end.
Empanadas in Mexico are more typically found at Argentinean or Uruguayan restaurants. Yet the end result is often not unlike a common style of preparation for quesadillas found at Mexico City food stalls, where the dough is stuffed with various fillings and then deep-fried in oil. The main difference between the two is that there is an expectation of higher-quality dough and ingredients with authentic empanadas, which in turn are accompanied by a higher price tag.
Bailón explained that her family was handed an empanada recipe from Argentine emigrants they worked with in the early 80s, and while she refused to divulge the details, she hinted that the dough is essential to the final product’s success. “The dough is everything,” was all she would say.
The whole production is done quickly by two or three workers, assembly-line style: the hand-crafted dough wrappers are filled and then fried for a few minutes before being taken out to drip dry on a metal rack.
The result is exceptional. The dough is cooked golden brown on the outside while remaining slightly soft on the inside – crispy like a pastry, but not flaky and, more importantly, not greasy or even slick to the touch. Critically, the dough creates a seal that keeps the oil from seeping in and allows the ingredients to be steamed.
Those fillings are the other secret to Los Abuelos’ success: many of the vegetables used in the nine different empanadas are grown in the family’s garden at their home in the Álvaro Obregón borough of Mexico City. This freshness, particularly in the mushrooms and poblano chiles, comes through clearly with bright flavors.
The steam brings these out in a lovely way. When we bit into our queso con rajas (poblano pepper with white cheese) empanada, we were fully expecting to find a stewed and very creamy filling similar to the queso con rajas that you find at most other stands in the city, but were pleasantly surprised by the crunch of the fresh chiles and the fact that they retained some of their heat.
Another wonder is the incredibly low price of 10 pesos per empanada. In fact, Bailón told us they had only days earlier raised the price from 9 pesos, which at recent exchange rates is around 50 cents. This is particularly mind-blowing when you consider that an empanada at Los Abuelos runs about 25-40 pesos cheaper than at any of the Argentinean and Uruguayan places just a few blocks away in Condesa.
While all nine empanadas are well-constructed treats, our favorite is the champiñones (white mushroom), with the alambre (seasoned grilled beef) being the best of the meat options.
Two empanadas are quite filling without breaking the bank. In this resurgently cool part of Mexico City, Los Abuelos stands out by being a down-to-earth spot where locals can grab some astonishingly cheap, heavenly good food. The best part is that they can be counted on to stay put.