TNT Diner

This new bakery’s fried pies come with meat or gooey cheese. And caramel sauce

Cheese empanadas come with cilantro aji sauce and arequipe, a carmel sauce, at Sabor Colombiano Luis Panes Empanadas in Tacoma.
Cheese empanadas come with cilantro aji sauce and arequipe, a carmel sauce, at Sabor Colombiano Luis Panes Empanadas in Tacoma.

I’m no stranger to the wonders of empanadas, which are fried mini pies filled with meat or cheese.

But I’ve never been handed a cup of caramel sauce when I’ve ordered one.

That’s the first clue that empanadas are a little different at newly opened Sabor Colombiano Luis Panes Empanadas. That’s because those empanadas are Colombian.

And, as they’re eaten in Colombia, cheese empanadas here come with the Colombian caramel dipping sauce called arequipe. A single bite of the gooey cheese empanada dunked into the rich swirl of arequipe made me an instant convert.

“In Colombia, we love our sweets,” said Sebastian Betancourt, the youngest son of owners Luis and Gladys Betancourt. Savory-and-sweet pairings are common in Colombia, he said.

Two more siblings also work alongside Sebastian. Johanna Ledesma Betancourt works there full time, and Jully Bullock works every Saturday, the bakery’s busiest day of the week. Johanna’s husband Francisco Ledesma also helps out.

The bakery and restaurant — which also calls itself Empanadas Luis Panes as a nickname on social media — is not new to Tacoma, but it is new to the location at 5640 South Tacoma Way. The spot’s been home to a revolving door of restaurants that includes Around the Corner Cafe 2,The Chili Parlor, Papa Eddie’s Cajun Cafe and Edison City Diner.

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Beef empanadas with aji sauce from Sabor Colombiano Luis Panes Empanadas in Tacoma. Sue Kidd

Before Empanadas Luis Panes opened on South Tacoma Way, the family baked at a commercial kitchen at Cultura Event Center, which, funny enough, also is the home-base kitchen for popular Tacoma bakery Pampeana Empanadas (their style of empanadas are Argentinean).

Before Cultura, Empanadas Luis Panes sold empanadas at B&I, the shopping center in Lakewood.

“We’re now in 20 stores,” Sebastian Betancourt said of the Latin grocery stores from Washington to Oregon that carry the family’s handmade empanadas.

He said it takes the family just a few hours to churn out 300 handmade empanadas, which is pretty incredible considering they’re made entirely from scratch.

The empanada dough is corn, not wheat-based like the versions diners will find here in our Argentinian and Peruvian restaurants.

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Cheese-filled empanada from Sabor Colombiano Luis Panes Empanadas in Tacoma. Sue Kidd

The family grinds dried corn to make the dough that comprises the outer shell of the empanadas. Those shells are filled with a choice of beef, chicken or cheese, then hand crimped and fried. The shredded beef empanada came spiked with cilantro and tomato. The chicken filling had been slow cooked and well seasoned. The cheese version spilled a lava flow of cheesy goo. More empanada choices, including vegetarian versions, are on their way.

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Aji sauce is made with cilantro at Sabor Colombiano Luis Panes Empanadas in Tacoma. Sue Kidd

The family members also make a different sauce for each of the empanadas. There’s the caramel arequipe that pairs with the cheese empanada, as does the aji, which is a striking, slightly spicy cilantro condiment that tastes like a distant cousin of Argentinean chimichurri.

“Aji is about as spicy as Colombian food gets, which is not very spicy at all,” Betancourt said.

I’d also call it more flavorful than spicy.

The aji sauce is meant for the beef or chicken empanadas. There’s also a “pink sauce,” which is a tasty, rich sauce that’s something like a special sauce (like what you’d dunk your fries in at a burger place). That sauce is best paired with the beef empanadas, said Betancourt.

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Empanadas come with a three different dipping sauces at Sabor Colombiano Luis Panes Empanadas in Tacoma. Sue Kidd

On weekdays, the restaurant is focused on empanadas. The three daily choices are sold in trios for $7.50. On weekends, the menu expands to include Colombian specialties impossible to find throughout the region.

“We make a famous Colombian dish called bandeja paisa. It comes with nine items — rice, beans, shredded beef, a little arepa (like a Colombian pupusa), guacamole, chorizo, chicharron (fried pork), platano maduro (fried plantains) and topped with a fried egg. People from Oregon to Everett come here for that,” Betancourt said.

The giant plate of food sells for $20 on Saturdays until it sells out.

There’s also Colombian tamales and the popular Colombian soup, Sopa de Mondongo, offered on Saturday. That’s a vegetable heavy tripe soup.

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Arequipe is a sweet, rich Colombian caramel sauce that comes with the cheese empanadas at Sabor Colombiano Luis Panes Empanadas in Tacoma. Sue Kidd

The baked goods are Luis Betancourt’s passion, said his son. The Betancourt family comes from Medellín in the Antioquia department in northwestern Colombia. There, Luis Betancourt started working with sweets as a grade schooler. He delivered candy for his grandfather and worked his way to owning four bakeries, which he handed down to the family’s oldest children who still live in Colombia.

Betancourt’s pastry offerings change frequently. A limited pastry selection is available on weekdays with broader options on Saturdays. The current rotation includes savory fried cheese pastries called bunuelos. There’s also pastelitos de arequipe, flaky pastries filled with that thick, rich Colombian caramel sauce, and pastelitos de guayaba made with guava.

Sabor Colombiano Luis Panes Empanadas

Where: 5640 South Tacoma Way, Tacoma.

Info: 253-273-1913 or

Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Closed Sundays.