By David Minsky
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The U.S. Census tells us there were 1,023 Uruguayans living in Broward in 2000, another 1,829 in Miami, and just 522 in Palm Beach (although the number of Uruguayans living in South Florida had tripled to 10,971 by 2003). The Uruguayan community is the second smallest group of South Americans, just above Paraguayans, living in Florida, where the South American population approaches 23 percent. But then again, Uruguay is a tiny country, wedged like a stray arrowhead in the distended belly of the continent's eastern coastline. It's also one of South America's most stable economies.
With the rhythm of immigrants everywhere, though, Lily and her family have assimilated in America. The elderly sisters speak perfect English into their cell phones, their kids listen to hip-hop in their loaded SUVs, their grandchildren TiVO their favorite shows and post blogs on MySpace. But culinary customs die hard. What you eat in childhood, you crave in old age. Lily's cousin, who has long since given up the butcher trade he plied in Hoboken, still makes his own blood sausages in Florida. Her nephew, Max, ritually prepares and passes around a silver straw embedded in a maté gourd the way other guys his age might share a joint. And the hand-built brick parrilla in the center of her immaculately tended backyard is a point of pride. Lily and Max demonstrate the pulley for me that lifts and positions the heavy iron grate; they show me how the wood coals are piled in the metal basket alongside, and the brick oven with its fancy chimney. "We designed this ourselves and hired Uruguayan brick masons to build it," Lily says.
"It must really be something," I say, "to see this baby fired up and put to use."
Say the word chivito to any Uruguayan and you'll induce moans of pleasure. Lots of cultures have some version of the meat-and-cheese sandwich Philly cheese steaks dripping with onions and Cheez Whiz; cubanos larded with pork and pickles and melted Swiss squeezed between slices of grilled bread; the ploughman's chunks of chuck and cheddar served in British pubs. But for sheer heft and chutzpah, nothing can top a Uruguayan chivito.
You've got to imagine that whoever invented this gargantuan sandwich must have been kidding. Chivito means "little goat," and one origin story goes that a café owner in Punta del Este came up with the notion because he'd run out of the grilled goat meat a customer wanted and tried to pull a fast one with a mix of ham and beef. Another story is simpler: Eat the whole thing and you'll feel like you've swallowed an entire goat hooves, horns, and all. To make a chivito, you keep piling assorted greasy proteins on top of a soft roll until you finally just run out of ideas. The chivito at El Rey del Chivito ("The King of the Chivito") on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, my favorite, dresses a spongy homemade roll with a layer of thinly pounded steak, tops that with Canadian bacon, tops that with cheese, tops that with two fried eggs, adds sautéed onions, lettuce, and tomato, and sticks a green olive with a toothpick through the top. When you bite into it, gobs of mayonnaise gush out both sides and run down your chin along with steak fat and onion juices if you aim right, dripping down on the plate of fries instead of ruining your shirt. Eating a chivito is a messy, visceral, fattening personal experience. It's one of the few foods I know best eaten solo. Come to think of it, maybe that's why the black-eyed minx at El Rey was indulging her guilty pleasures alone.
Zuperpollo on Miami's Coral Way sells a chivito zuper on a French baguette that's even bigger and heavier than the one at El Rey. Its version adds red peppers and mushrooms, and you have to unhinge your jaw like a serpent to get your mouth around it. But the true specialties of the house at Zuperpollo are items Uruguayan owner Jorge Sanchez concocted during the 20 years he's run this restaurant, like the vazio relleno (stuffed flank steak). He invented it to celebrate his head cook's birthday. "I wanted to make something different, not just what the guy had to cook every day," Sanchez says. "So I took a flank steak and cut it open and stuffed the 'glove' with bacon and cheese and parsley. Then I cooked it over a fire, and after it was cooked, I cut it into inch-thick slices, so you could see what was inside, and then finished it in the oven. Everybody loved it, so we put it on the menu."
Uruguayans do not skip lunch. Zuperpollo is packed at 1 p.m., and everybody's eating steaks dressed with big green scoops of fresh chimichurri garlic, oregano, parsley, and olive oil. Sanchez's vazio relleno is right in the spirit of Uruguayan cuisine. And so are the grill offerings on his menu: a mixed parrillada of steak, chicken, sweetbreads, chorizo, blood sausage, and short ribs. Or the flap steak, the top sirloin, the skirt steak, the rolled meat stuffed with vegetables called matambre a la parrilla. Or any of those topped with some combination of bacon, fried eggs, spinach, ham, or cheese.