On the Meat and Potatoes: A Guide to Uruguay’s Steak Culture
It seems there is no simple translation for the word ‘steak’ in Spanish, especially in Uruguay. Meat-lovers are in a veritable paradise here: Uruguay is world-famous for its free-range cattle production; popular restaurants called parrilladas offer an array of meat dishes, and local butcher shops are ubiquitous. The only conundrum lies in deciding what part of the cow to eat!
Instead of ordering a ‘steak’, many Uruguayans go for a popular cut called tira de asado. This is a typical cut from the Rio de la Plata region which includes portions of rib bone, generally cooked well done (bien hecho in Spanish) over a grill heated by red-hot coals. Asado is also the Uruguayan term for the social event of having a barbeque. When people get together for an asado, this is an opportunity to stand around a fire, talk, and have fun. Any type of meat can be grilled at an asado, though a couple of kilos of tiras de asado are always present.
Other popular cuts are the lomo, entrecot, and bife de vacio. These cuts differ in their toughness and fat content, and consequently are cooked differently. The lomo, or tenderloin, is a prime cut with very little fat, generally served rare, or jugoso, in Spanish. Another prime cut, the entrecot, is often cut with a strip of fat, and thus is best served medium rare, or a punto, in Spanish. The bife de vacio, or flank steak, is a bit tougher than the entrecot or lomo, and is thus a cheaper and more ordinary cut.
A quality steak can be found at many parrilladas across Montevideo. One of the most traditional and picturesque places for meat-lovers is the Port Market, or El Mercado del Puerto. Saturday lunches at the Port Market are a classic excursion for Uruguayans and tourists alike. The market offers many parrilladas in the same place, and customers can peruse the grills before deciding on a place to eat. Beyond the market, nearly every neighborhood in Montevideo has a good quality parillada; some are quite quaint and enjoyable, so it’s worth exploring the varied options.
Perhaps the closest Uruguayan equivalent to the American steak is the churrasco, although there are some noticeable differences in style. The churrasco is a thinly sliced piece of beef, preferably lomo, generally pan fried, not grilled. It is commonly served much like an American hamburger: in a bun with lettuce, tomato and a myriad of toppings, such as egg, bacon, ham, olives, red peppers. When served this way, it is affectionately called chivito. The quality of the chivito depends on the freshness of the ingredients, and whether it is served with lomo or a less-expensive cut. Uruguayans are picky about that too. Some of the more renowned chivito restaurants are El Tinkal, next to the US Embassy, La Vitaminica in Pocitos, La Negra Tomasa in Buceo and the Chiviteria Marcos chain.
The accompaniment? Well, the attraction is the meat, so the salads are often low-key. French-fries are always an option, as are potatoes, yams or red peppers on the grill. Part of the joy of eating out at parrilladas is the ambience of a barbeque. At any point during your meal you can take your drink and visit the grill to chat with the parrillero (griller) and see what he is cooking. Talking to those masters of the grill is probably the best way to learn about the famous Uruguayan beef.