This New Empanada Bar Is a Bright Light in Riverwest

At La Cocina del Sur, popular food truck owner Pedro Tejada channels the kitchens of his native Ecuador.

I stare at my dining companion in disbelief. “You don’t like plantains?” I say, as he shakes his head regretfully. “Well, more for me, then.” We’re at the new La Cocina del Sur in Riverwest, knocking back Topo Chico and waiting for something to do with our forks. Most tables are full, and the one closest to us is seven people deep, their conversation animated and wholly in Spanish.  

To my delight, the plantains arrive – strictly speaking, it’s a fried plantain sandwich from Venezuela called patacon pisao. Thin, oblong slices of crisp fried green banana sub in for bread in La Cocina’s open-face version, and the filling ties it into a bow, flavor-wise: crumbled queso fresco, creamy guac, spicy curtido slaw and tangy pickled onion ($11.50). It’s an appetizer on a menu that expands on what the owner, Ecuador native Pedro Tejada, has been doing for years with his Pedro’s South American food trucks. Those trucks mined empanada and arepa territory, and there would be hell to pay if those items weren’t on the restaurant menu. Tejada gives the people what they want – a slew of Latin meat or veggie-filled empanada pastries, four kinds of arepas (corn pancakes smothered with toppings), eight appetizers, a couple of sandwiches, a soup and a salad and a few entrées. 

Llapingachos from La Cocina del Sur; Photo by Chris Kessler



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Empanadas from La Cocina del Sur; Photo by Chris Kessler

There isn’t much on this menu I wouldn’t want to eat again. Our spoons decimate the bowl of creamy, cheesy elotes (Mexican corn, $6), and the smooth, rich Ecuadoran potato soup topped with pork crackling, avocado and crispy corn nuts ($8). But I’m a little conflicted on the empanadas – the shells of the baked ones aren’t as tender as I’d like, although the fillings are really delicious, including aji de gallina (shredded chicken with yellow chile cream sauce), ground beef with peas and carrots, and mushroom-asiago-truffle ($5-$6). Dipping them in chimichurri – a green, parsley-based sauce – helps me forget the overworked dough. On the other hand, Tejada’s cornmeal arepas are leaning towers of tenderness. The pancake base is smothered with your choice of meat, plus slaw, pickled onion, cilantro and sauce or aioli ($14.50 each). One is deceivingly filling, too.

Tejada, who’s brought more color and softness to the old Riverwest Filling Station’s industrial vibe, says he hopes to slowly roll out more dishes. How I’d love to see more additions like the llapingachos ($15.50) – a combination of potato-cheese cakes, pan-seared chorizo, onion salad and peanut sauce well-loved in the Ecuadoran city of Ambato. The Ecuador-style chorizo link is mild and light – so different from crumbled, heavily seasoned Mexican chorizo. Nuanced nods to tradition make me excited to see what this Kitchen of the South – the restaurant’s name in English – can do. 

La Cocina del Sur; Photo by Chris Kessler

La Cocina del Sur Empanada Bar

701 E. KEEFE AVE. | 414-810-0108

Hours: Wed-Sat 4-9 p.m.; Sat-Sun brunch to come

Prices: Empanadas $5-$7; plates/entrées $15-$16

Reservations: Recommended; call.

Service: On the ball, friendly



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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.