.9 Julio Empanada Kitchen Opens on Claremont Avenue

After five long years, Erica Sanders' pan-Latin popup moves into its first brick-and-mortar

The second empanada chef Erica Sanders ever tasted was in Costa Rica. Twenty years ago while studying Spanish there, she ordered them at a bakery on her way to and from school. The memory of eating them turned out to be her version of Proust’s madeleine. 

Upon returning to the United States, she noticed empanadas were difficult to find. Sanders decided to learn how to make them herself. “I started having empanada-tasting parties with my friends,” she said. Since then, she’s made a variety of great and not-so-great empanadas. This extended research and development phase informed the way she makes them at 9 Julio Empanada Kitchen, her first brick-and-mortar.

Sanders began selling empanadas at farmers markets, the Alameda Point Antiques Faire and, eventually, as a caterer. Although the Costa Rican empanadas remain a source of inspiration for her, 9 Julio is pan-Latin in terms of flavor profiles. When she was starting out, customers from Bolivia and Colombia sometimes brought her seasonings from their native countries for her to incorporate into recipes. “I take inspiration from everywhere that empanadas call home,” the chef said.

One of her customers described 9 Julio’s empanadas as “pockets full of awesomeness.” Her pocket pies may be unique to Latin America, but many cultures around the world make something similar. “You’ve probably had a pasty, a calzone or a dumpling,” Sanders said. “But you can’t get empanadas at any corner taqueria. They’re a little bit more unique, and in keeping with one-hand eating.” 

For Sanders, a good empanada starts with the dough. “We roll out our dough as thin as we can so that it’s a perfect wrapper for the filling,” she said. “I take pride in the fact that we have a very thin, flaky empanada dough. To the point where I had an Argentinian couple ask if we use a special oven because they’d never had dough as flaky and crisp without frying it.”

While many establishments fry empanadas, 9 Julio’s bakes them in the oven. Sanders’ recipes encompass up to 25 different flavors, savory and sweet, that rotate on and off of the menu seasonally. Two current vegetarian options include a mushroom-and-onion empanada and one with spinach and cheese.

“As we get more summer produce, I’m really excited to bring in our humita, or corn empanada,” she said. “We take fresh corn off the cob, sauté it with onions and bell peppers, and add cheese. It’s one of our more popular flavors.”

A chimichurri sauce made with fresh herbs is the traditional dip served with an empanada. But 9 Julio also makes four additional sauces—aji amarillo, salsa verde, avocado jalapeño for plantain chips and chipotle ranch for sweet potato chips. “People use whatever sauce they like to dip their empanadas in,” she added.

9 Julio officially opened at the beginning of April, but Sanders found the location for her shop in 2019. A series of construction delays brought about by the Covid pandemic made for the protracted wait.

“We had kicked off construction as the lockdown hit, so we spent a lot of time reconfiguring our layout because we had it set up for more of a communal space,” Sanders said. “Big family tables became less in vogue, so we had to reimagine the space and do things like adding a takeout window to make sure that we could get food out to people.”

During those five years in limbo, Sanders missed being in the kitchen, and her customer base continued to send her requests for empanadas. Despite the wait, the chef felt, in the long run, “What we were building towards, and literally building in terms of the restaurant, was going to be worth it in the end.”

Now with a working kitchen, Sanders’ expanded menu includes Latin American comfort food. “In addition to the empanadas we have Peruvian roasted chicken, chimichurri steak, and then a bunch of sides and salads,” she said. “You’re able to order empanadas as well as full meals.”

9 Julio Empanada Kitchen, open Tue-Sun, 11am to 9pm; 5239 Claremont Ave. Ste A, Oakland. 510.698.9535. 9julio.com.

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