PW's Food Critic Taste-Tests a South American Alternative to the Cheesesteak

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 26, 2012

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On a journalistic trip to Uruguay last month, I had the chance to explore what is one of the most exciting, up-and-coming wine countries in the world. It’s also home to some of the best beef on the planet—featured in a sandwich that, to its devotees, is the source of some serious obsession: the chivito. Naturally, coming from a city like Philadelphia, where we’ve got our own legitimate claim to meaty sandwich supremacy, hearing people talk endlessly about the chivito’s beefy greatness provoked my Philly pride. Sure, I’d give these Uruguayan ringers a shot. But come on: Would I actually find a sandwich that could rival the cheesesteak?

In a word: Sí.

At first glance, the restaurant where I had the best chivito didn’t look all that promising. I’d fallen asleep in the passenger seat of the car, lulled into a food coma from a steak lunch and a morning spent tasting several dozen wines. More than an hour into the trip back to our hotel, the driver woke me up with a nudge to the shoulder and a hearty declaration of “Chivito!” I opened my eyes and was convinced, for a good few seconds, that a wormhole had opened up in the space-time continuum, and I’d been transported to South Jersey. Flat and dusty around the edges, American Bar—located on the highway in Colonia, about an hour and a half from the capital city of Montevideo—didn’t offer much in the way of aesthetic appeal. Its sign was surrounded by Coca-Cola branding, and the interior was an unusual combination of brown floor, brick walls and neon-green highlights.

And yet, in a country where dinner is typically enjoyed on the later side, the lot was already full at 6 p.m. What’s more, my two colleagues and I were, as far as I could tell, the only nonlocals in the place. So we settled in, ordered a few beers, and I got down to the work at hand that evening: tasting what I’d been told would be one of the best chivitos I could possibly find.

It was a religious experience.

The chivito was one of the most unfussy sandwiches I’ve ever eaten, a flavor-riot of simple, honest components that, together, are even better than they’d be on their own. Sandwiched between the halves of a soft, mayonnaise-slathered bun were slices of bacon and leaves of ham, juicy tomatoes, lettuce and mozzarella cheese. But the key to the whole endeavor was the beef: mineral, juicy and ambrosial with the charred flavors of its cooking. Sinking my teeth into it produced a tingling sensation deep in the center of my brain that I imagine I’ll spend the rest of my days searching in vain to recreate.

It makes sense that such a singular sandwich is to be found in Uruguay. Because the quality of the meat is impeccable all over the country; every time I sat down to tuck into beef in any of its many and varied incarnations—which was once or twice each day—I was dumbfounded by its sheer deliciousness. In fact, I’ll go this far: Uruguay is a great example of why the agro-business apologists in our own country need to stop arguing that industrialized beef is somehow better or “more American” than the supposedly “elitist” natural stuff.

Because it’s not.

Remember back in March, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a few of his political colleagues and a slew of video cameras toured a meat processing plant in their ill-conceived and full-throated defense of the mass- produced, ammonia-treated ground beef product dubbed “pink slime,” that apotheosis of the entire factory-farming model of agriculture? Here’s the thing: Politics aside, it’s hard to argue with the flavor of beef cut from a healthy, sustainably raised cow. It just tastes better.

But what’s so remarkable about a country like Uruguay is how lightly that mantle is worn. Beef from naturally grass-fed cows is what people there have always eaten. I didn’t hear anyone obsessing over its pedigree because they didn’t have to. World-class beef is simply a part of the culture, and the pricing is reasonable enough to make it a legitimate staple of the diet.

Is the chivito better than the cheesesteak? Well, I don’t think it’s a fair comparison; they are completely different sandwiches. You can love Haydn and Eminem at the same time, or the comedies of Judd Apatow and the dramas of Ang Lee, so why not a chivito and a cheesesteak? Surely the world needs both.

But I will say this: The 11-hour trip from Philly to Miami to Montevideo was utterly erased from my mind when, a few hours after landing, I first tucked into a chivito somewhere that wasn’t nearly as great as the Homeric epic at American Bar would be later in the week.

So, a truly great chivito? It’s a thing of transporting, unimaginable beauty.

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