Sunday, April 18, 2010

On the Street in Chile: Here Comes the Mayo

I recently traveled to Chile with my wife to visit some friends and get a whirlwind tour through a very small portion of what is an unfathomably long country. In our short stay we were able, among other things, to see the enchanting hills of Valparaiso, hit the streets of Santiago and take a long walk up to a tall glacier in the Andes.

The Andes make the Rockies look very small

Along the way I, of course, sampled whatever food I could; from upscale restaurants to the greasiest, late-night-iest street food, some of which is actually called Ass (but more on that later). I could probably dedicate several weeks of blogging to my food experiences in Chile, but I will try and condense it into one post by focusing on what I really love: street food. Oh, and then there's the mayonnaise.

Chile is not only the land of rugged mountains, pristine coastline, world-famous wines and the like, it is also likely the epicenter of all things mayonnaise. It is mayo heaven. (It is as common as the Chilean dread mullet--on the left-- but unfortunately is not a trend.) It is a land where the question is not would one like mayo on his or her food or not (and certainly not whether said food item should even have mayo slathered all over it in the first place), but rather how much mayo and which kind. Yes, in Chile there is not only copious and altogether excessive use of mayo, but choices of mayonnaise as well. Mayonnaises you might say. And that brings up another point: before Chile I had never put any thought into the plural form of mayonnaise. After Chile, I had to look it up. Apparently it is correct grammatically, though on many levels it is of course, very wrong.

Would you like mayo, mayo or mayo? 

It is not just the omnipresence of mayo that is uncomfortable, it is its excessive scooping, dolloping and spreading that makes it a creamy nightmare on most foods. Take the wonderful Chilean hot dogs as an example. This infamous street food was first on my list, and my first order from a stand in Santiago's Plaza de Armas was the Italiano: red tomato chunks, wonderfully green and fresh avocado (palta in Chilean) and of course the ubiquitous white mayo. It is actually still good even with the huge mayo serving, but the overall creaminess of this dog outdoes the meatiness, and this is just a strange way to enjoy a hot dog. Good nonetheless, but without the mayo, great.

After trying a couple more dishes and their respective mayo excesses, I decided that I more than understood the traditional Chilean street food experience, and for the rest of the trip I chose to skip the mayo in order to actually taste the rest of the food. Without the mayo there are some true street food winners. The absolute best of which is the Choripan. Only to be found on choice street corners, usually starting in the late afternoon and well in to the wee stumbling-drunk-home hours, it is a chorizo-like sausage on a bun. Simple and delicious sans mayo and with any number of other toppings like saurekraut (chacrut), avocado (palta), tomato and some greenbean-like things.

Lomito with that great Chilean palta (avocado)

A close second was the Lomito and the Churrasco. Followed by the Ass. Actually these are all basically the same thing, the first two of which come on a large round bun with the same toppings as the hotdogs and the Choripan (and everything else). Lomito is shaved pork while Churrasco is shaved beef. The Ass, whose origins were unknown to the woman who scraped it off what looked like a diaper and cooked it for us, is also shaved beef (short for Asada?), only it is served in a hot dog-style bun. All are actually very good. Without the mayo.

When in Chile you should eat some Ass

Then there was the Chorrillana. Of all the world's varying hangover-curing food remedies, this might be the best. It is a monstrous pile of greasy fries covered in fried egg, grilled onion and shaved beef. It is disgustingly delicious and actually so powerful that two plates of it at once cured four hangovers and somehow greased out a little stomach bug I had acquired a few days before. Amazing. And the best place for the famous Chorrillana? J Cruz M. Down a hidden back alleyway on the streets of Valpariaso, Chile's gritty equivalent of San Fransisco. It is all they serve there, and while you will find variations of this dish all over Chile, this is, apparently where it was invented. Genius.

Likely the best food experience we had was, not surprisingly at a market. Markets in any country are often the best way to experience food in a country, and Chile is no exception. Santiago's La Vega market serves up some amazing cuisine. One of the specialties is apparently the chuleta, or pork chop. Unfortunately, it is so popular that by the time we got there it was just being erased from the board, and having already ordered our drinks, I felt bad (and a little scared) of bombing out on what seemed to be some very serious-looking old ladies who had just made space for us at a table. Instead of a pork chop we shared an excellent light and crispy fried fish and a beef cazuela-- a richly flavored broth with a fat cut of beef, fresh herbs and some vegetables.

Back to the mayonnaise. We also went to a thing called Cafe con Piernas, which translates to coffee with legs. Here, scantily clad girls serve you coffee (actually refreshingly good coffee--the best we had on our entire trip) and then sort of stand there and talk to you. Sounds awkward? It is. You may remember the Bourdain Chile episode where he has a cup of Joe in one, bathed in daylight and cleanliness. This is not the typical experience and not where we went. Our place was advertised with a neon sign and the entrance was dark, like one of those entrances where illegal things are almost certainly going on. It is a legitimate business our server assured us, "Only coffee," she insisted as she brought out three rum and Cokes. Oh that? That was because she knows our friend. That is for the special clients. "But no lap dancing and definitely no touching," she tells us. Interesting I think, as I peer over her shoulder to watch one of her colleagues grinding away on a customer also sipping away on a rum and Coke. Must be a very special client. I excuse myself and head down to the bathroom where I spy another girl slipping out of a private door in the grungy basement space-- probably she was just in the breakroom eating dinner, or roasting some coffee.

Unfortunately most of the "nicer" Chilean food we ate was plain and well, just not that good. The best single food we had in Chile was probably ceviche from a Peruvian restaurant, so I guess that says something. But again, there were some street food winners once we learned it was OK to say no to the mayo. Even if you like mayonnaise, the Chileans will without a doubt overwhelm you with it. If you can handle it, you will do well here, if you can't then learn this phrase and you will do much better: "Sin mayonesa, por favor."

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