Jezabel Careaga Brings a Taste of Argentina to the Neighborhood

Jul 24, 2018 22 months ago

By Yasmine Hamou, UCD Marketing and Event Intern

On a Monday at lunchtime, in a quaint, modestly decorated dining room meets kitchen meets home goods store on 45th and Walnut, you may see a few young professionals and community regulars scraping the last of their Mediterranean salad off of their plates before (or after) devouring the store’s renowned empanadas. A musical selection ranging from bluesy Etta James to folksy Michael Kiwanuka plays softly, while Jezabel Careaga welcomes guests into her eponymous shop - Jezabel’s Studio - her casa de empanadas.

Philadelphia boasts a cultural culinary selection that (we believe) is relatively unparalleled in the rest of the East Coast. Beyond the signature cheesesteaks, one can find great Italian and Mexican in South Philly, soul food in North Philly, and French in Center City. Eclectic West Philly is a trove of cuisines: Ethiopian, Eritrean, Vietnamese and, most uniquely, Argentine. Each neighborhood does Philly a little bit differently, but with equal parts love and authenticity.

Much like Philadelphia, empanadas also boast a culinary history that is unparalleled in much of Latin America; this singular pasty defines a region, but each Latin American nation prepares the empanada a little bit differently. Chileans add egg and onions. Cubans and Puerto Ricans fill them with picadillo. And Jezabel Careaga? She does it the Northwest Argentinian way. No matter how they are fried, an empanada is still an empanada. “You eat an empanada and you finish it, and you're like ‘I want to have another one.’”

Jezabel Careaga’s empanadas came from the heart – and Jujuy, Argentina – to 45th and Walnut one year ago. She dreamed about the United States throughout her youth, hoping that she would find herself somewhere between Washington, D.C. and Boston. She yearned for a place other than her homeland. “I was always like ‘I want to leave the country [Argentina]. I want to travel.’”

Around 2010, while working at the Loews Hotel in Miami, Careaga’s dream came true when she was given the opportunity to move to Philadelphia after a businessman told her about a property he was hoping to fill. When she arrived in Philadelphia she moved into a former neighborhood bar in Fitler Square. At first she opened a traditional café, but Careaga soon craved the tastes of her homeland. She could not find good Argentine cuisine in Philadelphia, and like a college student living away from their mother, she hungered for her favorite food from home, empanadas. She decided it was time for the flavors of South America’s tango capital to dance at 26th and Pine, packed between spiced beef and a buttery, puff pastry dough that perfectly envelopes what can only be described as heaven, for just $2.50. Jezabel wanted true comfort food, so she decided that the best way for her to have perfect empanadas like those of her patria was to sell them herself. “When I opened Jezabel’s… there was no Argentinian bakery or cafe and we are still the only Argentine place for baking and cafe, for casual eating”.

It was shortly after Jezabel’s found success in Fitler Square that the entrepreneur made the decision to expand to a West Philadelphia location. Jezabel chose West Philly for the same reason that a lot of us love this part of the city - the humble, familial ambiance that radiates on each block. “I lived at 43rd and Pine when I moved to Philly and I loved the neighborhood,” Careaga says. “I loved the tree-lined streets, the life, the community feel. I wanted to come back to West Philly and get a little more involved in the community because it’s diverse and open and I think they celebrate places like ours so I feel like it’s a really special neighborhood.”  

Unlike many large US cities, Philadelphia has a deficiency in the types of non-Mexican Latin American cuisines that Jezabel is helping to usher in.  She is optimistic, however, about the future of Latin food in Philly. In the past year alone, Philly has seen the openings of Chalaco’s (Northern Liberties), Vista Peru (Old City), Puyero Venezuelan Flavor (Society Hill), and El Merkury (Center City West), signaling a shift in Philadelphians’ palates.

Now that Jezabel has succeeded with two shops, her plans for the future include returning to the region she left behind. “I’m trying to find my way back home. My next project will be to head back to Argentina. My parents recently relocated to Patagonia … so my idea is to head that way.” But before she leaves the City of Brotherly Love for beautiful, expansive, mountainous Patagonia, Jezabel is thinking about leaving behind a cookbook for her fans: “I don’t know if it will be just food… I think that food is the way you connect with people, but for me it’s not just about the food. It’s the journey that food has taken me through it's my own personal growth I would love to share that.”

And we would love for you to share that, Jezabel.

Jezabel’s Studio is at 208 South 45th Street, open from 11AM-7PM on weekdays and 10AM-6PM on weekends.

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