"Where’s the beef?" asked a popular TV commercial a few years back. Where, indeed! Virtually everyone I know in North America is cutting back on meat consumption or eliminating it entirely.
How different life is south of the equator, where meat remains the bedrock of the Latin American diet. This truth became apparent to me the moment I landed in Montevideo, Uruguay.
"Beef is cheaper here than chicken," explained my taxi driver, pointing out the profusion of butcher shops (one every couple blocks) on the way to my hotel. During my stay, the Montevideans I met proudly admitted to eating meat between 10 and 12 times a week.
If this seems like a cultural flashback, just a stroll through the old quarter of Montevideo proves it out. Studebakers, panel trucks, even Model-T Fords ply the tree-lined avenues and cobblestone streets. Laundry hangs on the wrought-iron balconies of moldering eighteenth-century townhouses. Here, in the old quarter of the capital of the smallest nation in South America, time seems to have stood still.
Time has surely stood still at the Mercado del Puerto. Montevideans flock to this once-stately covered market for a carnivorian orgy of grilled steaks, sausages, roasts, roulades, and organ meats.
Built in 1868, the Mercado del Puerto is a soaring temple of girders and glass. Access to the block-long market is gained through grandiose iron gates, and a three-story-high skylight, blackened with smoke and age, towers over an ornate clock tower whose hands are frozen at 4:30 p.m. The dilapi-dated stone floor gives the Mercado a slightly seedy feel-which is what a proper market should have. And one thing’s for sure: The beef is definitely here.
Follow your Nose
As you walk through the old town, you can smell the market before you actually see it. It’s a common aroma in South America-a comforting blend of fire-seared meat and wood smoke. Formerly Montevideo’s main food market, the Mercado of today is its barbecue headquarters, home to more than a dozen bare-bones restaurants specializing in grilled meats. Take a seat at one of the counters and you’ll taste some of the best barbecue in South America-as well as parts of animals you never knew you could eat.
Consider the Estancia del Puerto (Port Ranch), a lively grill founded more than a quarter century ago by Antonio and Marono Fraga. The latter 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. The Estancia alone will serve 500 people a day, going through more than a ton of beef a week.
Patrons, many of them regulars since the restaurant opened, take their seats at black marble counters surrounding the kitchen. (There’s also a separate seating area with proper tables and chairs.) Some are office workers, while others are city employees or dock hands, although the crowd is dressier than you’d expect for the portside location. There’s no doubt that the focal point of the restaurant is the massive grill, where pork, lamb, chicken, and especially beef are charred to smoky perfection.
The Uruguayan grill has two working parts. The first is a U-shaped metal basket that holds blazing hardwood logs. As the logs disintegrate, the glowing coals are raked under the parilla, a large, rectangular metal grate that serves as the actual grill. The grate slopes gently upward in the back: The front (the part closest to the coals) is used for searing the meat the rear is used for roasting and warming.
The asador (grill man) is recognizable by his white coat and gorra (short-brimmed cap). He remains in constant motion, now adding a log to the fire box, now raking a fresh load of coals under the grate, now moving meats from hot spots to cool spots or back again. When not actually grilling meats, he may be boning a chicken to make a pamplona (or stuffed roast), or rolling carrots, peppers, hard-cooked eggs, and flank steak into a belt-loosening roast called matambre, literally "hunger-killer."
The first thing that strikes you at a Montevidean grill is how limited the North American notion is of what makes suitable barbecue. 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’s small intestines coiled around large intestines that tastes better than it sounds), chinchulin (buttery, crescent-shaped spirals of lamb’s small intestine), or riñones (veal kidneys).
Uruguayans are also great fans of sausage-a love they may have acquired from the German immigrants who settled here in the early part of this century. Chorizo is the most famous Latin American sausage. To most North Americans, chorizo means the spicy Mexican variety. Uruguayan chorizo, on the other hand, is salty and garlicky, but not in 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. There are, in fact, two different types of morcilla in Uruguay, savory and sweet. The latter is flavored with sugar and raisins and is absolutely delicious. I wish I could find it at home.
Uruguayan beef cuts will be equally unfamiliar to most North Americans. The most popular is asado de tira-a long, thin cross section 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, smokily charred "breast," which is similar to brisket.
Whatever you order, know that it will be served with the utmost simplicity. The plate is cheap stamped metal. The accompaniments are limited to
a parsley and garlic sauce called chimichurri (think of it as 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, serving farofa (toasted manioc flour) for sprinkling over the meat to absorb the juices.
To round out your meal, you might have a baked potato or simple salad of lettuce, tomato, and onions. Desserts are usually packaged confections that are as intensely sugary as the espresso served after the meal.
Another popular lunch spot is Don Garcia, named for its jovial 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 while for a seat at the red granite counter. However long it takes, don’t miss it, for Don Garcia serves some of the best, most reasonably priced food at the Mercado. Two could eat themselves silly for 63 pesos (about $12) by ordering the parillada (mixed grill). You’ll be presented with a sizzling-hot plate heaped with chorizo, morcilla, salchicha, several types of innards, and even a steak. Another of the Don’s specialties is grilled bread, which Garcia slathers with oil and garlic. To wash it down there’s a sort of Uruguayan sangria made with ginger ale and red wine.
The Mercado del Puerto is mainly a lunch spot: Most of the grills close by 6:00 p.m. At least one restaurant reopens for dinner: El Palenque. Founded in 1964, this popular eatery straddles the east wall of the market. At lunchtime, patrons line up at its marketside counter. At night, there’s a streetside dining room with country hams hanging from the rafters and a terrace with plastic café chairs.
El Palenque serves the sort of staunchly carnivorous fare found throughout the Mercado del Puerto, but there are two house specialties that will delight nonmeat eaters. The first is provolone asado, grilled slabs of provolone cheese sprinkled with olive oil, oregano, and pimientos. The second are grilled sardines-among the rare seafood I saw at the market.
El Palenque’s owner, Emilio Gonzales Portela, came to work here in the 1960s as a humble grill man. Today he owns the restaurant, which serves 400 customers a day. I guess you could call it the American dream-Montevidean style.
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