By David Minsky
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By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
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By Doug Fairall
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By Laine Doss
A chic Miami Beach vixen, black-eyed and golden-skinned, maybe 20 years old and all of a hundred pounds, sits alone at El Rey Del Chivito. Menu in hand, she says something quick and cool to her waitress. The café is three-quarters empty at noon on a blistering Friday, the kind of day when a brutal sun makes your skin crawl. Latin pop music reverberates against whitewashed walls hung with framed soccer jerseys, sepia-drenched stills of Uruguay in the '40s and '50s, newspaper clippings, an advertisement for ice cream tartufos. In the far corner, the day manager rubs his chin over his accounts. Evidently, it's early for El Rey's South American clientele; they'll start filling up the Formica tables in half an hour, kids feeding nickels into the gumball machines while parents pop the caps off beer bottles.
This black-eyed girl looks like the kind of self-disciplinarian who limits her lunches to six almonds and a quarter-head of lettuce. But that plate of steak the cook has just hefted up in the kitchen window with both hands, easily a full pound of flesh glistening and dripping, topped with two eggs fried sunny-side up with yolks the size of yo-yos, the whole business circled by a bristling picket fence of fries draped in pale orange ketchup-and-mayo "golf" sauce is that plate really meant for her? He taps the bell twice.
Girl With Meat. It's a portrait of everything you'll ever need to know about Uruguayan cuisine. This girl's daily intake likely consists of two parts protein, one part fat, one part sugar: a dietary triumvirate so indulgent of appetite, so determinedly, physically carnivorous, it seems almost immoral.
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I got interested in Uruguayan cooking through a friend, Veronika Fiore. Veronika's not a particularly loquacious character, but she waxes ecstatic over the parrilladas her extended family puts on. Parrilladas (Uruguayans pronounce it "parrichada") are basically giant meat-eating fests that go all night long. "There's every kind of meat you can imagine," she says, rubbing her stomach. "Steak cooked on the grill a million ways. Chicken, liver, throat glands, brain, tongue, blood sausage, and stuff. Sometimes a whole lamb. Not like your barbecue; I hate all that sticky sweet sauce you Southerners put on everything. Too smoky. Uruguayans leave the meat alone so you can taste it." She smacks her lips. "It's a feast."
"Wow," I say. I'm imagining reddened, masculine faces bent over hot coals, fire licking at the underbelly of a 20-pound slab of cow, great steaming mounds of chorizos and morcillas. Somewhere in the background, somebody is strumming a guitar and passing a gourd of maté, or better yet, tippling wine from a leather pouch. "I sure would love to see that," I hint. "Boy, I'd pay to see something like that."
Veronika grew up in Fort Lauderdale, but when she was about 13, her aunts found out that her paternal grandmother had put a hex on her. Apparently, her grandmother bore Veronika's mother a good deal of ill will. So they packed Veronika's bags and flew her back to Punta del Este, the Uruguayan seaside resort the aunts had come from and where the grandmother still lived. When they got there, they retained the services of an Umbandan priestess to drive her grandmother's evil out of her. There was an extended interval that involved finding exactly the right white bird. When they finally dragged her over to the priestess' place, Veronika screwed shut her eyes so she couldn't see what they were doing to her. She thinks they covered her from head to toe with some kind of blood. "Imagine, here I am this totally American teenager," she told me. "I was scared shitless."
That vignette might give you the idea that Uruguayans are a hoodoo-practicing people, but nothing could be further from the truth. The aunts, upstanding Catholic ladies with university educations, were just hedging their bets, I think. Uruguay is a tiny country, a mere 3.4 million souls, but Uruguayans are in fact the most cultivated and highly schooled of all South Americans if anything, more progressive even than the European stock they descend from. Public education is free for all; Uruguayans instituted women's suffrage, the eight-hour workday, and divorce before the United States, France, and Spain did. The country is often called the "Switzerland of South America." It's turned out an impressive number of artists, poets, and revolutionaries, and lately, it passed two of the toughest bans in South America: on public smoking and the privatization of water. Uruguayan heritage a blend of Spanish and Italian with bits of Basque French, Swiss, Portuguese, and Danish thrown in is a patrimony handed down from generation to generation in their foodways and their fine manners.
But the cuisine they've evolved owes its heart and soul to the wild gauchos who ran the pampas for a couple of centuries cows have always outnumbered people there, and today there are three head of cattle for every man, woman, and child in the country. In Uruguay, the cowboy and the aesthete meet over the dinner table.
As it turns out, that cowboy's grass-fed beef is some of the healthiest protein on the planet. Because they're raised on grass, and are almost never finished on grain, Uruguayan cattle are far less likely, as is all grass-fed beef, to carry the E. coli bug that brought us our recent spinach panic (the greens were infected through cattle manure). The bad-spinach scare has even had U.S. food watchdogs demanding a return to grass-finished cattle here at home. And a University of Georgia study found that Uruguayan grass-fed beef has not only low levels of "bad" (saturated) fat but more "good" (polyunsaturated) fat too, including Omega 3 fatty acids. Even better, Uruguayan beef was found to have significantly higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), shown in many studies to counteract weight gain, decrease glucose levels, and kill cancer cells.