Elisa Milan’s Puerto Rican-style empanadas have garnered a cult following and media acclaim, giving her the unofficial title of “Baltimore’s Empanada Lady.” Along the way, Milan, who has no formal culinary training, has launched a vibrant restaurant that celebrates her Afro-Latina heritage.
“From the beginning, I was loud and proud about Puerto Rican culture,” said Milan. “Puerto Rican culture is not loud in Baltimore. We’re here but we’re more spread out. I’m from the Bronx, so there are empanadas on every corner. In Baltimore there wasn’t as much exposure.”
Milan started The Empanada Lady in 2016. At the time, she was working in the healthcare industry, and she started selling empanadas made with her Puerto Rican grandmother’s recipe at pop-ups and other events. Business grew thanks to word of mouth and social media, and she became a full-time entrepreneur in 2019. Milan launched her first brick-and-mortar location in 2021, expanding with a move to her current restaurant in downtown Baltimore in July 2023. The larger space offers full-service dining, a cocktail bar, expanded menu, and even a Puerto Rican-style bodega stocked with soda, beer, candy, and other merchandise.
“People are familiar with Peruvian or Argentinian empanadas, but maybe not the bold flavors of my empanadas, which this city loves,” she said.
Although her empanadas are based on the recipe her grandmother taught her, Milan has made them her own. Instead of traditional bite-size pastries, her extra-large empanadas weigh in at 6.5 ounces and are about six to seven inches in length. She serves them with a “Nada Sauce” which she describes as a super-seasoned, spicy aioli. It’s so popular that she sells it by the bottle and the exact ingredients are a closely-guarded secret.
Another unique twist is her wide range of fillings, from classics like beef or pork to more creative options like salmon or turkey. “As I expanded, I wanted to have something for everybody,” Milan explained. “The crab is because we’re in Baltimore. I want to show love to the city! The shrimp is my personal preference. I like seafood. There’s apple for dessert, and we even expanded into vegan [empanadas].”
Milan’s welcoming attitude is clearly visible in her restaurant space, with cheerful pops of magenta and yellow, a lounge area that feels like a trendy friend’s living room, and walls decorated with works by local artists. She hopes that dining at the Empanada Lady is a communal experience for her customers, with menu options that include large platters of empanadas, sides, and cupcakes served family-style.
“I’m Afro-Latina, so the communal, family-style experience speaks to both of my cultures,” Milan said. “I want to encourage people to walk around, to get out of their seats to connect with the art. I want to help artists make income from the space I’ve been able to create. “I want the restaurant to be profitable, but also a safe space for the community and to support artists,” she added. “And the food is great! We do everything with heart.”
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