Atlanta Orders In: Atlantans fall hard for Belen de la Cruz’s empanadas, sweets

Belen de la Cruz has 13 empanadas on the menu; eight are vegetarian, and five are available gluten free.
Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Belen de la Cruz has 13 empanadas on the menu; eight are vegetarian, and five are available gluten free. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

A few years ago, a friend suggested to Belen de la Cruz that she give cooking classes at her home in Alpharetta. De la Cruz — a Buenos Aires native who has spent a good chunk of her 48 years raising three children and moving around the world as the wife of a former Coca-Cola executive — thought her friend was loco.

But, her friend was on to something.

De la Cruz grew up around food — with a mother who made pasta and limoncello from scratch, and a father who exported fish from Argentina to Europe. She’s fun, has a flair for design and pastry decorating, and makes killer empanadas. Soon, De la Cruz was staging girls-night-out parties in her kitchen. The ladies drank wine, wore “naughty” aprons, and got their hands dirty rolling empanadas and stuffing them with ground beef, ham and cheese, and chicken.

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Clockwise from the upper right, this plate of Belen de la Cruz sweets includes a marquis, alfajor, brownie, lemon bite, lemon cake and a havannet. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Clockwise from the upper right, this plate of Belen de la Cruz sweets includes a marquis, alfajor, brownie, lemon bite, lemon cake and a havannet. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Today, De la Cruz is living a kind of Cinderella tale that feels like a perfect storm of good timing, smart branding, and endless spunk and ambition.

Encouraged by her two brothers (now her business partners), she opened Belen de la Cruz Empanadas & Pastries in Johns Creek on a snowy February day in 2020. She expected to sell about 600 empanadas that first month, and ended up tallying 4,000. Last month, sales hit 10,000. Now the empanada-preneur is readying a second location, expected to open at Marietta’s Piedmont Commons by the end of March.

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Her baked-to-order empanadas, it seems, are a pandemic-proof food that travels well, reheats easily, and gives Atlanta an authentic taste of South America. Right now, she has 13 flavors on the menu: beef and chicken (with and without cheese), caprese, spinach, butternut squash, corn, onion, two-cheese, ham and cheese, bacon and mushroom. Five of those (onion, cheese, ham and cheese, caprese, chicken cheese) are gluten-free.

Belen de la Cruz is the owner of her namesake bakery in Johns Creek.
Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Belen de la Cruz is the owner of her namesake bakery in Johns Creek. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

“The fillings are the same recipes that I cooked all my life,” she said. Beef is by far the top seller. If you are Argentine and you don’t sell beef, she joked, “you have problems.”

Empanadas sell for $3.20 each ($3.50 for gluten-free), a price that De la Cruz knows can seem expensive to some. She emphasized that she uses premium ingredients. And, rather than letting her savory hand-held pies sit around in warmers, they are baked to order. Customers have a choice of picking them up hot; parbaked, so they can be reheated at home without overbrowning; or frozen. Detailed cooking instructions are on her website.

Her store feels a bit like a high-end empanada boutique. Bright white and gleaming, it mixes contemporary design with old-world pastry flair. Down the hall, past the counter, you can peek into the kitchen and see employees stuffing and pressing empanadas.

After bringing home a mixed dozen of the flaky beauties, I can see what the fuss is about. I’m still working my way through the box, but I especially liked the beef and the bacon, particularly when dipped in a bit of the chimichurri sauce — made with dried herbs and rather nutty tasting, a bit like a Mexican salsa macha.

Also, a box of the exceedingly pretty pastries would make a lovely and delicious gift. (To-go confections are neatly arranged on white-paper doilies, packed in boxes and tied with ribbon.)

The brownies are kind of miraculously crispy at the edge, yet gooey in the middle. Coconut-pecan bites reminded me of how much Latin Americans love sweets; at the same time, they evoked flavors that Southerners love at Christmastime. The piece de resistance, though, is the alfajor, a shortbread sandwich cookie filled with dulce de leche, one of the great culinary contributions of Argentina.

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Belen de la Cruz specializes in Argentine empanadas and pastries; it opened in 2020 in Johns Creek. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Belen de la Cruz specializes in Argentine empanadas and pastries; it opened in 2020 in Johns Creek. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

BELEN DE LA CRUZ

Menu: empanadas and pastries

Alcohol: no

What I ordered: a dozen empanadas, including beef, cheese beef, chicken cheese, ham and cheese, bacon, corn, onion, mushroom and butternut squash; two containers of chimichurri; and pastries, including a brownie, lemon bite, lemon cake, marquise bite, havannet bite and alfajor. Owner Belen de la Cruz threw in a small box of pastries, including the coconut-pecan bite, which appealed to this Southern boy’s sweet tooth.

Service options: order online, by phone or at the shop; dine-in available; no delivery

Outdoor dining: two benches on the sidewalk

Mask policy: mandatory for staff and patrons

Address, phone: 11730 Jones Bridge Road, Johns Creek; 470-359-2976

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays

Website: belendelacruz.com

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