An Argentinian adventure sparks a Calgary craving

By Lisa Monforton

After a recent bike packing trip to Argentina, my suitcase contained more than a few keepsakes. I also brought home something else: a love – which has morphed into a craving – for the country’s savoury pastries known as empanadas, and an equal appetite for the open-fire grilled meat, known as asado.

During our 10-day bike-packing tour in northwestern Argentina with Calgary-based OnaVelo, our group fueled up on the palm-size pleasures of empanadas. We lost count of how many we ate. We were, after all, on the La Ruta de la Empanada between Salta and Tucuman — two regions known for their empanada rivalry.

Empanadas are a crescent-shaped pastry and, depending where you eat them, are crispy with wood-fired oven char marks, golden and flaky, or even fried. We’d typically order a platter of traditional chicken and beef empanadas, the meat minced and mixed with spices: cumin, paprika and oregano, accented with a squeeze of lemon or chili sauce. But the fillings can run the gamut from llama to ham and cheese or eggplant.

It’s easy to bite into a chicken filled one when you meant to have beef – but there is code to what lies between the pastry. Repulgue is the style of crimping the empanada’s edges, but you’d have to eat hundreds to learn the difference.

Regardless, any empanada is a perfect pairing with the national beers, Salta or Quilmes, or a crisp, chilled Torrentes Argentine wine, a white grape native to the country.

Rick McFerrin, owner and operator of OnaVelo, has eaten countless empanadas during his 20 years of trips to Argentina. In a diplomatic nod to the competition between Tucuman and Salta, he says: “I have been told that when in Salta, it is best to say that the Salta empanadas are the best, and when in Tucuman, it is best to say that the Tucuman empanadas are the best.”

McFerrin’s long-time friend, Santiago Aeragon, who lives in Tucuman, is fiercely loyal.

“Of course, the empanadas in Tucuman are the best because empanadas are only made in Tucuman … other provinces make something like empanadas, but they are not really empanadas according to a Tucumano.”


To satisfy our craving in Calgary we ordered a box of beef and chicken from Latin American Empanadas. The owners are Vanessa and Jorge Giacalone. He’s from Argentina and they use his mother’s “secret” recipe, which includes ground beef, onion, salt, sugar, garlic, cumin oregano, paprika, green olives, sliced eggs and raisins. Delicious! They also make Chilean varieties and Canadianized versions, like chicken pot pie.


About a quarter of their clients are from Latin or South America, Vanessa says.

The second most ubiquitous food in Argentina is asado – a beef lover’s Holy Grail – and McFerrin’s favourite.

Executive Chef Jessica Pelland of Charbar is the reina of grilled meats in the East Village kitchen in the Simmons Building. Pelland, a born and raised Calgarian with no Argentine roots, was determined to learn the traditional grilling method. In 2015, she went to Argentina to learn the male-dominated art, after having won the $10,000 prize on Chopped Canada for her charcuterie talents. She’s also known for adeptly wielding a cleaver and can butcher a cow and grill it to perfection, a handy skill if you want to learn asado.

Chef Jessica Pelland

Chef Jessica Pelland

“Cooking around the fire has always been comfortable for me,” said Pelland, who grew up camping with her family. As a chef she also realized, “There’s a huge correlation between Argentina and Alberta with our love of beef and the campfire with ranchers.”

Heading to Argentina, Pelland had a handful of contacts through Charbar and Charcut co-owner and chef John Jackson and Argentine born Sebastian Sztabzyb, of Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters, who share space in the Simmons Building. The connections helped open the kitchen door to some of Buenos Aires’ asado masters, albeit with some reservations, says Pelland.

Asado cooking

“You’re a girl,” she remembers one saying. “I was this Canadian woman who wanted to work the grill for free. They were so skeptical; it was really funny.”

Pelland watched and learned the chefs’ secrets from well-known asado restaurants, such as Peron Peron, Sucre and Le Grille. She also ate a lot of beef while there.

Back in Calgary, Pelland stoked Charbar’s wood-fired grill where she serves up massive tenderloins, ultra dry-aged two-pound steaks, as well as some off cuts, short ribs and chorizo, along with her take on the Argentine chimichurri sauce. (See recipe below)

The key to cooking asado, Pelland says, is keeping the flavours simple with a bit of salt, and maybe a little pepper.

“You need to be constantly feeding the fire, but you don’t want too much flame, you need that balance, moving the coals to where they need to be.”

That satisfies her fans. “We definitely have a few Argentine regulars … they say it tastes like home.”

The menu also features Argentine-style beef empanadas (See recipe below). “They are a mix between Salta and Buenos Aires, says Pelland.

Meanwhile, McFerrin keeps his empanada and asado indulgence in Argentina.

Asado cooking

“It’s just not the same having those things in Calgary. What I do enjoy doing at home in Calgary is having a nice bottle of Argentine Malbec or Tannat and enjoying a nice steak and talking about the “next” time I get to return to Argentina.”

Click here for Chef Jessica Pelland’s Chimichurri recipe.