El Palenque may not be the fanciest restaurant in Montevideo, Uruguay, but when it comes to eating beef, there’s no place I’d rather be. Located in the Mercado del Puerto (Port Market), a nineteenth century covered market that today serves as Montevideo’s barbecue headquarters, El Palenque offers a staunchly carnivorous bill of fare that includes mollejas (grilled sweetbreads), choto (crispy rolled tripe), and an asado de tira (long, thin cross section of the rib roast) that literally buries your plate.
But my favorite dish here bears the curious name of matambre. Actually, the name says it all. Hambre is the Spanish word for "hunger." Matar means "to kill." Put them together and you get one of the most distinctive dishes in South America.
Matambres are usually described as rolled, stuffed, baked or grilled flank steaks. But travel around South America and you’ll find that they can come flat and plain, as well, and made with a variety of meat cuts, not just flank steak. Traditionally served as an appetizer, matambres also come in portions large enough to dwarf the average North American entrée.
For me, the matambre reaches its apotheosis at El Palenque. The Montevidean version features a belt-loosening array of sausages, carrots, bell peppers, and cheese rolled in an oregano and sage-scented sheet of flank steak. When sliced widthwise, the matambre forms a handsome spiral of beef studded with a colorful mosaic of vegetables, cheese, and sausage. Knowing about the restaurant’s mighty portions, I ordered a half serving of Palenque’s hunger-killer. The slice was as thick as a phone book. I’d hate to see a full portion.
The first matambres appeared in Argentina as steaks seasoned with salt and herbs and cooked flat over glowing coals. Such was the matambre I received by way of a welcome at the Estancia La Cinacina, a ranch west of Buenos Aires that stages barbecues and equestrian shows for sightseers. Cut into 1-inch squares and served on toothpicks, this sort of matambre makes for a tasty hors d’oeuvre.
Matambre embellishments vary from restaurant to restaurant and chef to chef. The Estancia restaurant in Buenos Aires (not to be confused with the aforementioned ranch) rolls its matambre only with a sprinkling of olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, oregano, and bay leaves.
In Brazil, I feasted on a splendid matambre at the Barra Grill in Rio de Janeiro. True to Brazilian tradition, the meat had been marinated in a spicy garlic-and-lime-based marinade, prior to being rolled with bacon and cheese, and roasted on a spit.
Because of the innate toughness of the cut of meat used in the dish, matambre requires lengthy cooking to attain the proper tenderness. You might think that lengthy cooking would be difficult, if not impossible, over a live fire. But South American grill jockeys resort to an ingenious method. They swaddle the matambre in aluminum foil and cook it for several hours over a low fire. The foil prevents the outside of the meat from burning, while holding the matambre neatly in shape.
Whether you serve them as colorful appetizers or main courses, one thing’s for sure: They certainly will kill your hunger!
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