Che Cafe occupies the space formerly used by a Little Caesars in a shopping center on the south side. It’s in the very back, around a blind corner obscured by the Hole N 1 Golf Pub.
You might get tipped off by the Argentine flag flapping in the wind (or on Tuesdays, their day off, hanging over their glass door), or the delivery car branded with their logo and blown-up photos of their empanadas, the main dish at Che Cafe, 1998 E. Irvington Road.
Owner Jon Hessling has plans to further distinguish his restaurant’s exterior: a green-and-white striped awning and bistro tables, like those he loves when he visits Argentina, the home country of his husband, Dante.
But for now, the exterior gives little indication for the lovingly curated homage to Argentina that awaits you inside.
Black tablecloths and rolled napkins sporting Argentina's flag on a toothpick decorate each table. Though you order at the counter, and the menu is small, when you order drinks they come in fine glassware. Coffee comes with small glasses of orange juice and seltzer water — the first for soothing your stomach, the latter for cleansing your palate — as well as small cookies Dante makes, lemony shortbread filled with dulce de leche.
The focus of the menu is empanadas, Argentine-style. Empanadas vary across Latin America: in comparison to other styles, which are fried or made of corn, the dough for empanadas argentinas, called tapas, is thin and made with flour. Initials stamped on the crust indicate which filling you’re getting, then it goes in the oven to be baked. Fillings can be both sweet and savory, unlike the desserts you’re used to getting at La Estrella or El Triunfo bakeries.
Though every empanada I tried was good, the standouts of the menu are humita, which is filled with a mixture of corn and a creamy cheese sauce; fatay, which is shaped in an open-faced triangle and filled with lemon-marinated beef; and their classic beef, which is ground beef mixed with grilled veggies and tangy whole olives. They’re served with chimichurri and pink salsa criolla. Chimichurri is the traditional accompaniment to beef, though Jon would encourage your first bite without sauce to get a true sense of the flavors.
Jon started making empanadas in 2020. His mother was sick and in the hospital during the pandemic. She lived with him for the last 25 years of her life. He took care of her in their home.
“I had her spoiled,” he said. "Rotten." Months after she passed, he realized he had been making empanadas the whole time.
Jon is a devoted Christian. You can feel his faith in the way that kindness moves through him (and Dante), with generosity from a greater source.
He prays regularly: to his mom, to God, and to the mountains. When they moved to Tucson, Dante noticed a rock formation in the mountains behind their house that looks like God in his throne, especially in the early mornings when the sun hits just right.
Jon feels like his lifetime of service — taking care of his mom, his daughter and son, his sisters — is now being rewarded in Tucson. People love his empanadas, and tell him: in person, in reviews online.
“I believe that God is blessing me now. I truly believe that,” Jon said.
In the back of the kitchen, you’ll see a framed photo of his mom wearing a hat with a huge fascinator (“Fashionista,” Jon said), with Jon by her side. “So she can see me cook,” he said.
Though he and his mother were close, she’s not the person who taught him to cook.
“Every person has a story: When did you start? [They say,] ‘When I was young, I always had a dream.’ I don’t know where the hell this came from. I’m a big believer in God, and God put this in my hands, I guess,” Jon said.
He worked in real estate for his entire career in Houston, Texas, and moved to Tucson just last year to be closer to the niece the couple adopted as their own daughter. She moved here for her and her husband’s jobs. Jon also moved to Tucson to open Che Cafe.
But throughout his time in Texas, Jon would visit Dante’s home country of Argentina, where they’d spend time with loved ones and savor the culture. Though Jon is Mexican, he has completely adopted the country and culture of his husband.
If not for his mother, Jon would’ve moved to Argentina: when he and Dante visit, it’s Jon that’s extending the stay, while Dante goes home to their dogs.
The intention behind Che Cafe is to create a space in Tucson that transports you to Buenos Aires, where “che” is used like “guy” in English — both words poached from the names of revolutionaries. When tango is gently playing in the background, and a polished older woman is sitting in the corner seat with her coffee and a book, with the black tablecloths, it’s hard to believe you’re in Tucson, Arizona.
“Someone came down from the foothills,” Jon said, “They were saying this place does not belong here … It’s such a nice, elegant place.” They implied, he said, that he should be in the foothills.
“Thank you so much,” Jon said. Here, on the south side, “We cater to everybody,” he said.
Location: 1998 E. Irvington Road
Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday-Monday. Closed Tuesday.
Price: Empanadas are $3.95 each
For more information, check out their website.
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