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Taste of Travel: Uruguay : A Cut Above : In Montevideo, known for its European-flavored charm--'like Buenos Aires 50 years ago'--the culinary passion is meat and more meat

October 08, 1995|STEVEN RAICHLEN | Raichlen is a Miami-based free-lance writer and cookbook author.

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — 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.

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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.

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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.

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