The evidence was anecdotal but supported what I already knew. "Beef is cheaper here than chicken," said my taxi driver, pointing out the profusion of butcher shops--one every few blocks--on the path from the airport to my hotel.
I added that to other observations: There was the snack bar at the Montevideo airport that served chivitos, Uruguay's thick steak, ham and cheese sandwich, which seems overwhelmingly cholesterol-packed to North American sensibilities but is in keeping with the style of substantial meat-eating popular in this country. And there were the local people who proudly told me they eat meat 10 or 12 times a week.
This was all fine with me, because I was researching a book on barbecue and had journeyed to South America just to eat grilled meat.
Uruguayans eat lots of meat, especially beef. Abundant natural pasture and a mild climate have made raising livestock a strong economic force for this small country tucked between Brazil and Argentina on South America's southeastern coast. Huge cattle and sheep ranches occupy most of the nation's interior and Uruguay's beef and sheep products account for a major portion of the country's export income. Despite its port location on the banks of the Rio de la Plata, which empties into the Atlantic, the tradition of meat consumption remains strong in Montevideo, particularly in such places as the Mercado del Puerto (Port Market), where grilled meat is served in more than a dozen restaurants.
There is an unhurried, easygoing quality to Uruguay's capital city, Montevideo, that recalls a bygone era. In fact, guidebooks often say that Montevideo resembles Buenos Aires 50 years ago: strongly European, sophisticated yet courtly. A profusion of parks and gardens underlines that impression.
This city of 1.3 million in some ways feels more Italian than Spanish, particularly the old quarter, with its narrow streets and baroque buildings. That should not be surprising: While Uruguayans share a Spanish linguistic and cultural background, 25% of the population is of Italian origin.
Montevideo was settled by the Spanish in 1726 and from 1807 to 1830 it was occupied by British, Spanish, Argentine, Portuguese and Brazilian forces. It became the capital of an independent Uruguay in 1830. A few of its buildings look as if they're still on their original coat of paint.
There is, however, a modern side to Montevideo. I saw it in the high-rises facing the beaches, in the manicured golf courses, in the villas topped by satellite dishes. Like Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo boasts miles of beautiful beaches and a climate that is perfect for swimming during our winter--December, January and February.
There's a Latin courtliness to the people. The man sitting next to me on the airplane insisted on driving me from the airport to my hotel. People of whom I asked directions would insist on walking me to my destination, to make sure I didn't get lost.
A stroll through the old quarter of Montevideo is a step back in time. Studebakers, panel trucks, even Model-T Fords cruise the tree-lined avenues and cobblestone streets. Laundry hangs on the wrought iron balconies of 18th-Century townhouses. In the old quarter of the capital of one of South America's smallest nations, time appears to have stood still.
As I walked through the old town, I could smell the market before actually seeing it. It was the comforting blend of fire-seared meat and smoke. Formerly Montevideo's main food market, the Mercado is today the city's barbecue headquarters. It was here that I found some of the best barbecue I have eaten in South America: grilled steaks, sausages, roasts, roulades and organ meats.
Built in 1868, the Mercado is a soaring temple of girders and glass along the Rio de la Plata. Access to the block-long market is gained through grand iron gates. A three-story skylight, blackened with smoke and age, towers over an ornate clock tower.
Consider the Estancia del Puerto (Port Ranch), a bustling grill founded by Antonio and Marono Fraga more than a quarter-century ago. Marono is a short, bald, bespectacled man who remembers when the Mercado was a working food market with only one or two simple eateries. The boom came in the 1980s, when gentrification turned most of the food stalls into restaurants. Estancia alone serves 500 people a day, and more than one ton of beef per week.
Patrons, some of them regulars since the restaurant opened, take seats at black marble counters surrounding the kitchen. (There's also a separate dining area with tables and chairs.) The focal point is the massive parrilla (grill), where pork, lamb, chicken and especially beef are cooked to smoky perfection.
The grills used here have two working parts. One is a U-shaped metal basket that holds blazing hardwood logs. As the logs disintegrate, the glowing coals are raked under the large, rectangular metal grate. The grate slopes gently upward in the back: the front (the part closest to the coals) is used for searing the meat; the back for roasting and warming.
The asador (grill man) is recognizable by his white coat and gorra (short-brimmed cap). He remains in constant motion, adding a log to the fire box, raking a fresh load of coals under the grate, moving meats from hot to cool spots or back again. When not actually grilling meats, he may be boning a chicken to make a pamplona (stuffed roast) or rolling carrots, peppers, hard-cooked eggs and flank steak into a belt-tightening roast called matambre, literally "hunger-killer."
While North Americans tend to limit barbecue to only a few items--chicken, steak, sausage or seafood--no part of the animal is overlooked by a Montevidean grill master. A typical meal might start with mollejas (grilled sweetbreads), choto (a crispy roll of sheep intestines that tastes better than it sounds and costs about $4), chinchulin (buttery, crescent-shaped spirals of lamb intestine) or rinones (veal kidneys).
Uruguayans are also great fans of sausage--a love they may have acquired from German immigrants who settled here in the early part of the century. To most North Americans, chorizo means a spicy sausage, but Uruguayan chorizo is salty, garlicky and not the least bit spicy. It's rather like kielbasa.
Another tasty sausage is salchicha, which comes in a slender, tightly coiled casing. Morcilla is blood sausage, recognizable by its shiny black, crackling crisp casing. It, too, tastes a lot better than it sounds.
Uruguayan beef cuts will be equally unfamiliar to most North Americans. The most popular is asado de tira (about $12 at most places)--a 12- to 14-inch, one-half-inch-thick slab of rib roast that literally buries the plate.
The noises of the market are punctuated by the high-pitched whine of the meat saw, cutting sides of beef into asados. The generous marbling makes the meat incredibly succulent, while the rib bones provide extra flavor. Another popular cut is the pulpa (about $12 at most places), smoky charred breast meat that is similar to brisket.
Whatever the order, it will be served simply, probably on a metal plate. The accompaniments will be limited to a parsley and garlic sauce called chimichurri, a sort of South American pesto, and a tomato, onion and pepper relish known as salsa criolla. Some restaurants follow the example of Uruguay's northern neighbor, Brazil, by serving farinha (toasted manioc flour) for sprinkling over the meat to absorb the juices.
To round out the meal, many of the grills serve a baked potato or simple salad of lettuce, tomato and onion. Desserts are usually packaged confections--such as two pieces of meringue sandwiched around ice cream and dipped in chocolate--that are intensely sugary. These are cut by espresso served after the meal.
Such is the bill of fare, more or less, at most of the restaurants in the Mercado. But each establishment has its specialties and its own loyal clientele.
El Talero, for example, is known for its pamplonas, or stuffed and rolled chicken, beef or veal. To make it, ham, hard-cooked eggs, red bell peppers, raisins and prunes are piled onto a chicken breast, which is rolled into a compact cylinder and grilled. The resulting pamplona is sliced to reveal a colorful spiral of chicken and vegetables.
Another popular lunch spot is Don Garcia, named for its proprietor, who runs the restaurant with his dark-eyed wife, Alicia. This tiny eatery has no tables, and you'll probably have to wait a bit for a seat at the red granite counter. No matter how long it takes, don't miss it. Don Garcia serves some of the best, most reasonably priced food in the Mercado. Two could easily overindulge for about $12 by ordering the parrillada (mixed grill). It will include a sizzling hot plate heaped with chorizo, morcilla, salchicha, several types of innards and even a steak. Another of the restaurant's specialties is grilled bread, which Garcia slathers with oil and garlic.
If Mercado del Puerto is a great place to grab a quick meal, it's also an ideal place to rub elbows with the locals. Yet two of the best places for doing that--the most popular establishments here--aren't barbecue joints but bars.
The Meson del Whisky does a lively trade in whiskey and sodas, the latter squirted with ceremony from old-fashioned siphon bottles. A drink entitles you to a copetin, a complimentary assortment of cheese, olives, sausage chunks and spiced beans, served on tiny plates--sort of a Uruguayan tapas.
Another popular bar is Roldos, where well-heeled Montevideans nibble at wedges of cheese and plates carpeted with South American prosciutto.
While the Mercado del Puerto is mainly a lunch spot--most of the grills close by 6 p.m.--a few serve dinner, including El Palenque, a restaurant popular with European journalists. Founded in 1964, El Palenque is one of the older establishments in the market's modern incarnation as a restaurant center. At lunchtime, patrons line up at its long counter to dine. At night, patrons dine in a street-side room where country hams hang from the rafters.
El Palenque's owner, Emilio Gonzales Portela, came to work here in the 1960s, manning the grill. Today, he owns the restaurant that serves 400 customers a day. I guess you could call it the South American dream, Montevidean style.
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Getting there: From LAX fly to Montevideo, Uruguay, with one change of planes, on United, American, Varig or Lan Chile. Lowest round-trip, advance-purchase fares start at $1,150.
Where to eat: The Mercado del Puerto is located at the corner of Calle Piedras and Calle Perez Castellano, across the street from the old port in downtown Montevideo. Restaurants start serving around 11 a.m. and most close between 5 and 7 p.m., although a few on the east wall are open at night. For lunch, the best time to visit is noon-2 p.m., when the market is lively and the grills are all open. Most meals cost less than $20 per person.
The following are a few of my favorite bars and grills:
Bars: Meson del Whisky; Roldos.
Grills: Estancia; El Palenque (also open at night); Don Garcia; El Talero; Cabana Veronica.
Also worth trying: Rincon del Pescado, a fried fish shop in the southeast corner of the Mercado del Puerto; and Empanadas Carolina, a shop near the southern entrance specializing in empanadas --filled turnovers.
For more information: Consulate of Uruguay, Tourist Information, 747 3rd Ave., 21st Floor, New York, NY 10017; (212) 753-8191; fax (212) 753-1603.