Where to Eat in Santiago, Chile

SANTIAGO, CHILE – I’m hungry, and I’m hunting for a hot dog. Not just any dog, mind you, but the famous Chilean versions, noted for their “kitchen sink” mentality. Think Chicago dogs that are “dragged through the garden” with a stoner’s propensity to add just one or two more ingredients for good measure. I ask my guide to take me to a local joint, and he delivers: Dominó, a Santiago favorite since 1952, located on the Paseo Ahumada.

IMG_3663

Both inside the diner-style counter and outside, on the high-boy tables, people are launching into two-fisted chacareros – those griddled steak, tomato and green bean sandwiches – and lots of hot dogs. But the dogs here are multi-colored, psychedelic rainbows, topped with too many ingredients to count. There are the ones with corn and cheese and sauerkraut, but there are also the “Italians” – covered in chopped tomatoes, mayo and avocado. What’s so Italian about mayo and avocado, you ask? (They’re going for the colors of the flag, not the flavors). And those flavors are, unfortunately, weak. I suspected as much with the dry chacarero, which had as much flavor and personality as an insurance salesman, but when I bit into the dog (and it’s hard to find the dog, since it’s a size 10, like a Gene & Jude’s in Chicagospeak, plus skinless), the doughy, hard bun is like biting into a stale roll in a hospital (don’t they have steamers in Chile?) and the overwhelming taste in your mouth is of condiment, then bun, then, very faintly, encased meat without the usual “snap” of a Vienna Beef dog.

A "completo" with side of kraut at Dominó

A “completo” with side of kraut at Dominó

Just to be fair, I tried another version, called the “Completo.” This time, the little skinless dog was buried beneath chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro and mayo, plus an “Americana” sauce, which is essentially a pureed giardiniera (carrots, cauliflower, chile peppers); they serve a side of sauerkraut with it, to add as you wish. No thanks. All they really need to do is add some lettuce, and you’ve got a salad in a bun, which sounds a lot better actually.

IMG_3690

La Vega Market

We head to La Vega Central, the main market in Santiago’s Recoleta Comuna area. My guide, Marcelo, is a former restaurateur, who had a place here called Pasteleria Miraflores for about two-and-a-half years. He leads me through vendors hawking olives (briny, delicious) and seasonal strawberries and peaches (as juicy as can be). Since it’s the end of summer, the fruit is bursting with flavor, and the colors, sounds and smells of the market give me a second wind; I’m more energized than ever to find something delicious. We stop at a vendor selling sopaipillas, which I’d always thought of as a fried bread you ate for breakfast in New Mexico, but these discs are embedded with pumpkin, and the chew is both crisp and light. They taste great (but I toss them after a few bites, saving precious stomach space).

Sopaipillas at La Vega

Sopaipillas at La Vega

Marcelo leads me into the bustling heart of the market, where dozens of tables and chairs are set up. Waitresses buzz around us, asking if we want to order something from one of the adjacent kitchens, each the size of a Mini Cooper. We start with Caldo Pata, cow’s feet soup, which has a rich broth that is hearty, but sadly, lacking spice. This is a common theme I discover in Chile: they love hearty, filling soups and plates of cooked vegetables or even beef, but they hold back on the spices (with the exception of those bold souls in the South who liberally use merkén, a dried/smoked chile I talked about in yesterday’s post). A side salad, or ensalada de Chile is ordered, and while simple – just raw onions, fresh tomatoes and cilantro, dressed with a swoosh of olive oil and some salt – it’s somewhat addictive, forming a crisp, acidic counterbalance to what comes next.

Ensalada de Chile

Ensalada de Chile

Our next course is a winner: Porotos con Riendas, a thick, brownish stew with soft hunks of pumpkin, plus gigantic white beans and strands of pasta. It’s an odd choice to eat at the end of summer, in a hot, crowded market, but it works. Bread is offered, but like most of the bread in Chile, it’s awful. I pass.

IMG_3653

Porotos con Riendas (bottom) with braised beef and mashed potatoes.

One of the more interesting items we came across in the market was a sauce called “Americana.” I saw it located directly next to a large barrel containing what looked like a typical Chicago giardiniera – carrots, cauliflower, chilies and a few olives. When I asked Marcelo about it, he said the Americana was just the giardiniera in pureed form. Brilliant. Here was a way to evenly distribute that crispy, crunchy, pickled and spicy garnish over sandwiches and hot dogs. Chicago Italian Beef purveyors, please take note.

Americana sauce at La Vega Market

Americana sauce at La Vega Market

Not every restaurant is bustling in Santiago. In fact, at Motemei, it’s just the opposite. More like a lab-meets-dinner party. In his tiny home/office/test kitchen, Patricio Cáceres Pérez and his wife have their guests seated directly around the kitchen cooktop, with up to 14 people at a time. There is no music here, only an annoying fluorescent light from the dishwashing area that distracts. All the better to focus on the six courses he typically produces over the course of a meal.

IMG_3699

Patricio Cáceres Pérez at work at Motemei

Right off the bat, I notice two plastic containers getting a lot of use: one labeled aliño completo, which looked and smelled a lot like a Middle Eastern za’atar, but contained ground cumin, oregano, garlic, pimento and bay leaves. The other, that familiar jar of merquén, the southern favorite of smoked and dried chiles, pulverized into the size of kosher salt crystals. Sprinkling just a bit onto some pristine, raw oysters from Chiloé Island, in the south, with some tiny seeds from the native rumpa fruit, this first course was an eye-opener and a hint at where Santiago’s chefs are shifting – from the hearty, protein and carb-rich fillers at the markets, to the more refined dishes using native ingredients but dialing up the technique and plating. It didn’t hurt drinking a lean, crisp sauvignon blanc from the Casablanca Valley, between Santiago and Valparaiso. Food and wine produced so close to each other usually results in harmony.

1st course at Motemei: oysters from Chiloé Island

1st course at Motemei: oysters from Chiloé Island

Before my trip, food writer friends had asked if I was going to go to BORAGó, the highly-acclaimed tasting menu only restaurant led by young chef/owner Rodolfo Guzmán. The restaurant is a testament to foraging from all over Chile, and it garnered a top 5 spot in last year’s San Pellegrino Latin American 50 Best list. I did meet a friend there for dinner one night, and it was truly remarkable. Think the foraging of a Noma (Copenhagen) or Central (Lima) combined with the plating and serviceware of an Alinea, plus the approachable service an Eleven Madison Park. I’m going to write more about this experience in an upcoming profile piece for the Chicago Tribune’s travel section, so I don’t want to give too much away, but I was truly impressed with a few things, namely, the level of service.

Dining room at BORAGó

Dining room at BORAGó

Chilean restaurants have a very casual service style, but everyone here – from the food runners to the incredibly knowledgeable sommelier to the young sous chef from Cleveland, moving fluidly between Spanish and English – were at the top of their game, handling questions of sourcing with aplomb and reading the tables, knowing just how much to describe and when to stop, so as not to bore someone.

On my final day in Santiago, I had two very long, (Latin), lunches. The first, at the legendary Bar Liguria, where a busy lunch hour was punctuated by a bald man jovially playing old standards on a piano. We sat up front, in the bar, loaded with bric-a-brac and ephemera from old Chile, and ordered two classics: a cazuela, brimming with slowly-braised beef, root vegetables, squash and a fiery banana pepper:

Cazuela at Bar Liguria

Cazuela at Bar Liguria

The other dish, a beautifully grilled longaniza sausage, split in half, resting over a shallow pool of yellow garbanzo beans:

Longaniza sausage and garbanzos at Bar Liguria

Longaniza sausage and garbanzos at Bar Liguria

But the best was yet to come. The Fuente de Sodas, or “soda fountains” are a part of Chile’s past, just like mayo, and while Dominó is known for its chacareros and hot dogs, Las Cabras takes a much more modern approach to the idea of the 50s soda fountain. Here, you begin with bread that is actually craveable. It’s warm, it’s soft; there is a very small open crumb structure and you actually want to dip it into something. We begin with a pair of crudos, which, at first glance, look like tartar. But we’re told the beef and salmon before us are also cured with a bit of citrus, served with a side of crème fraîche, all the better to slather onto our sturdy toast points.

Beef crudo at Las Cabras

Beef crudo at Las Cabras

Then the offal arrives: sheep’s testicles showered in chilies, with a plate of unctuously soft beef cheeks and French fries. To break up the richness, a “salad” of avocados, radishes and celery is served, with a couple of straws jutting out from the sides. Huh? We learn that the straws are there to allow us to slurp up the tart, acidic pickling juices that the celery and radishes have given off, since they’ve been macerated overnight. What a delicious follow-up to the beefy richness on the other two plates.

IMG_3906

Testicles, cheeks and salad

Dessert is just as delicious, and a perfect end to our indulgent afternoon: a soft, flan-like custard, that’s burnt on the top layer, lending a sweet, caramel note, plus a torta de mil hojas – a crispy/crunchy layered “cake” with alternating layers of manjar, the Chilean equivalent to dulce de leche, and covered in a thin sheath of meringue:

IMG_3907

Torta de mil hojas at Las Cabras

By now, I’m stuffed of course, but I’m glad that my final meal was at Las Cabras. It gave me hope, that Chile wasn’t just a bunch of soda fountains serving mayo-laden sandwiches and weak hot dogs. It wasn’t a country full of lax servers who could care less about your dining experience, where they served inferior pisco sours and terrible bread (both are in abundance, believe me). The Santiago I got to see on my final two days proved that while the country’s food scene is still somewhat in its infancy, like, say, Lima eight or nine years ago, there are young chefs who are slowly turning it around. In most cases, they’ve traveled to other places, eaten in dynamic cities (with amazing chefs) and have returned to stake their claim, bringing some of the service expectations, ingredient obsessions and techniques used in other world class restaurants to their beloved Chile. But their not above pulling out the mayo. Some traditions never die.

 

Santiago Adventures (ask for Marcelo)

Dr. Manuel Barros Borgoño 198, Providencia 7500587, Región Metropolitana

+56 2 2244 2750

 

La Vega Market

Antonia López de Bello, Región Metropolitana, Chile

 

Motemei

Cocina Taller, Las Hualtatas 8061

+56 09 639 5426

 

BORAGó

Av. Nueva Costanera 3467, Vitacura

+56 2 953 8893

 

Bar Liguria

Avenida Pedro de Valdivia, Santiago
+56 22351943

 

Las Cabras Fuente De Soda

Luis Thayer Ojeda 0166, Providencia

+56 2 2232 9671

 

If you’re looking for a place to stay, check out The Aubrey Hotel, located next to the Zoological Park and Pablo Neruda’s home/studio/museum in Bellavista; lots of cool little bars and shops within a few blocks. Reliable, fast WiFi too.

Constitución 317, Providencia, Región Metropolitana
The Aubrey

The Aubrey

LAN flies nonstop to Santiago from L.A., Miami and NYC (JFK).

American flies nonstop from Dallas and Miami

Delta flies nonstop from Atlanta

United flies nonstop from Houston

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *