Empanadas at Che Cafe (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Che Cafe: Empanadas, Pizza & More Made With Pure Love

June 12, 2023
By Mark Whittaker
By Mark Whittaker

Compared to Tucson, Houston, Texas is a really big city — like crazy big. The word “metropolitan” gets thrown around when talking about spaces like that. Towering buildings, millions of people, and three major sports teams representing three major sports. Sure, Houston has all that, but we have Sonoran hot dogs and lots of room for cycling and hiking.

Houston is where Jon and Hector Hessling, a couple going on 20 years of marriage, were going to bake and sell Argentinian-inspired empanadas from recipes handed down from their mothers and grandmothers. At the time, the Hesslings were working in real estate but the idea of offering up delicious savory and sweet empanadas to the fine people of the Lone Star State was tugging on their “close the deal” slacks a little too hard.

Jon Hessling of Che Cafe (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Unfortunately, Jon lost his mother in 2020 and the empanada shop notion was placed on the back burner. The Hesslings needed a change of scenery, someplace that isn’t a daily hustle and bustle. It was Jon’s daughter who suggested moving to Tucson as she had been living here for a few years prior. 

So, the Hesslings made the leap from Eastern Texas to Southern Arizona. Once they settled in, they fell in love with our funky town and almost immediately got to work on setting up Che Cafe. 

Che Cafe (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

“The original location that we found was on Broadway heading toward the east side,” said Jon. “But when this space on Irvington and Campbell became available we knew we had found the right place at the right time.”

Che Cafe opened in October of 2022 to almost immediate acceptance and applause. In an area surrounded by plenty of fast-food options, a family-run restaurant that offers up enticing empanadas is a big relief for not just your budget but your belly as well. 

The cafe itself is rather intimate. Its walls are decorated with family photos and images of Argentina. The day I was there, I slowly ebbed onto a corner table to take pics as the lunch rush was underway. At high noon on a Thursday, Che Cafe was packed.

Pizza at Che Cafe (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

It’s extremely easy to see why the restaurant has mined such a tight following being open for less than a year. First off, much like a proper taco, an empanada is one of the most perfect handheld treats. This is Argentinian street food elevated to fortify the hungry mass of South Tucson and beyond and done so with careful aplomb. 

“There is a guy that visits us at least once a week who lives in Mesa,” said Jon. “We have had people from Green Valley, Oro Valley, and almost everywhere surrounding Tucson go out of their way to try our delicious empanadas. We are truly blessed.”

The Humita empanada is a curious one but is also one of their biggest sellers. The filling is a mix of corn, green onions, nutmeg, and parmesan cheese, giving it a slight corn chowder taste and appeal — a corn chowder wrapped in a housemade empanada. It is creamy, crunchy, and captivating, sort of like a South American soup dumpling… that isn’t soup. When you eat it you’ll get it. 

Empanadas at Che Cafe (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

Che Cafe also has spiced beef, spinach, chicken, and even ham and cheese-filled empanadas, all of which are really, really tasty. It’s mainly because of the uncomplicated list of ingredients along with those family recipes entrusted to the enterprising husband and husband team. Thanks, mama and nana!

One item on the menu that is a must-try is their take on an Arabic style of an empanada called Fatay. Instead of having a calzone look and approach, the fatay is tightly triangular with its interior of ground beef, tomato, onion, and lemon exposed in the middle. The flavor is a fuse of both worlds as well, sparking head nod approvals and orders of one-more-for-the-road fatays. 

The Empizza is just that — a pizza inside of an empanada. The pepperoni, cheese, and tomato sauce solidify that this item is, yes, a South American calzone. No, it’s an Empizza. I think the Hesslings are on to something. 

While we are on the pizza tip, I had no idea that Argentina had its own style of pizza. They do, and Che Cafe has three varieties for you to succumb to. 

“We make all of our own dough and we only get the best ingredients, as close to what you will find in Argentina as we can,” said Jon. “You’ve never had anything like our empanadas and now you will never have anything like our pizzas.”

Pizza at Che Cafe (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

It’s the crust of that dough that makes these so entirely unique. It’s thick and buttery yet soft and pliable, making the perfect surface for a house tomato sauce and toppings such as ham, roasted red pepper, and onions. If you are a fan of big green olives then Che Cafe is your spot because they use those bad boys on nearly everything. It’s an Argentinian thing. Olives aren’t just for the Greeks, you know? 

Che Cafe opens every day at 9 a.m. so if you don’t feel like cooking breakfast or grabbing a greasy gas station “egg” sandwich, they have you covered with a delicious chorizo and egg empanada.  

Their take on a frappuccino is far more delicate and thoughtful than the usual drive-thru suspect found on every corner these days — cheaper, too. The Mocha Frappuccino I had was sheer get-up-and-go glory, a bright way to start your day. You are supporting a local family-owned business and that alone should make the 9-to-5 grind go by a tad smoother. 

Hector Hessling of Che Cafe (Photo by Mark Whittaker)

But save some room for dessert! 

Che Cafe’s sweet empanadas aren’t too sweet —  just that tempered cloy from fresh apples, pineapples, sweet potatoes, and strawberries. If you liken yourself to a certain cartoon cat that loves lasagna then, yes, a dessert empanada is a perfectly good option for lunch or dinner because there is a savory factor to each “sweet” empanada. 

Sorry, not sorry about it, Houston. Congratulations on being Beyonce’s hometown but here in Tucson we have Jon and Hector Hessling of Che Cafe.

Che Chafe is located at 1998 E. Irvington Rd. For more information, visit checafeusa.com and follow Che Cafe on Facebook.

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Article By

Mark Whittaker began his journalism career in San Francisco around 1997. It was for a small Northern California music magazine that segued into contributing to numerous magazines, websites, newspapers and weeklies throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. Mark interviewed bands,...

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