Uruguay is probably the world’s greatest country that I don’t really remember going to. Once upon a time, I was a young, broke, dumb, patient lad traveling through South America on a ridiculously small budget. I hitchhiked most of the way from Santiago to Tierra del Fuego, was nearly left for dead on the frozen desert portion of Tierra del Fuego (lesson learned: hitchhiking through uninhabited tundra is a bad, bad idea), and then stuck with buses after that, hopping from the southern tip of Chile back to Santiago, then to Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The latter trip was one of the silliest I ever took. It was supposedly a 52-hour ride from Santiago to Sao Paulo. Yeah, right. We took a winding, indirect route through Argentina, with the bus breaking down once or twice along the way. I have a vague memory of waking up from a nap and realizing that we were in a ridiculously long line of vehicles attempting to pass through Uruguay en route from Argentina to Brazil.
After that, all I can remember is waking up in southern Brazil. I also have a memory of a drag show that spontaneously unfolded in the aisle during our fourth day on the bus. The little 52-hour jaunt turned into a sequin-fueled, 90-hour bus marathon. And by the end, I’m sure that I smelled worse than a goat.
Uruguay? Sadly, I don’t remember a thing. Did we exit the long border line and go around the country? Or did we just drive through it so quickly that I missed it, since I had pretty much fallen completely into bus-trip-zombie mode by then?
It’s too bad that I missed all of the fun in Uruguay, because it always seemed like a pretty interesting place. Most Uruguayans speak Spanish, but part of the country has developed its very own language, a Portuguese-Spanish hybrid called Fronterizo. Uruguay also earns points in my book for being the smallest country (currently about 3.5 million people) ever to win the World Cup (1930 and 1950, plus fourth-place finishes in 1954 and 1970). And Uruguay is the nation that pioneered the deliciously misnamed chivito (“little goat”) sandwich, which is generally hailed as the national dish of Uruguay.
Supposedly, the Uruguayan chivito was born in the 1960s in a restaurant called El Mejillon in Punto del Este, Uruguay. A traveler from Argentina ordered a “chivito” sandwich, thinking that she’d receive a plate of baby goat meat, which was popular in her hometown. For some reason that I can’t quite understand from any of the websites I’ve read in English or Spanish, the restaurant instead served her a sandwich of grilled steak, topped with lettuce, tomato, fried egg, ham, and mozzarella cheese, among other things. The story quickly grew into a national legend, and the chivito became Uruguay’s biggest culinary hit.
On our quest for a good NYC chivito, we ventured out to a steakhouse called Parrillada Mi Tio (often listed as “My Uncle’s Steakhouse” on NYC food websites) in Elmhurst. Oddly enough, I spent a summer living around the corner from Mi Tio, and I foolishly assumed that it was an Argentine steakhouse. Silly me.
For anybody out there who doesn’t already know this, Argentine steak is one of the great culinary wonders of the world. Just before the aforementioned trip to South America, I spent seven years as a vegetarian. Then a random, friendly Argentine gentleman invited me to an Argentine steakhouse in Mendoza, and I fell madly in love with tasty dead cow. (Too bad the dead cows served in the United States are rarely as tasty.)
From what I understand, Uruguayan steak is just is great as Argentine steak: both nations seem to obsess over carefully seasoned, grilled pieces of happy, grass-fed cows. Unsurprisingly, Uruguayan steakhouses seem indistinguishable from Argentine steakhouses—at least in the United States. (Actually, some Uruguayans question whether their country even has its own national cuisine—click here for an interesting discussion in Spanish.) As far as I can tell, you’d never know that an Argentinian steakhouse was actually Uruguayan unless they serve chivitos.
Lucky for us, Parrillada Mi Tio in Queens offered a chivito sandwich ($10.95), though I suspect that most patrons don’t look past the traditional Argentine steakhouse offerings. A steak sandwich might not sound all that thrilling, but there is something decadent about a Uruguayan-style steak sandwich topped with cheese, ham, a fried egg, and fried onions. The steak, unsurprisingly, was a perfectly-grilled, medium-rare slice of filet mignon—about as good as cow can taste in North America. And when the sandwich is served on a fluffy, fresh South American-style roll (little-known fact: Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay all have amazing bakeries) with a side of chimichurri (garlic-parsley spread) and aji (hot pepper sauce), the chivito sandwich becomes something that borders on divinity. Hell, the chimichurri itself was almost a religious experience, although my post-chivito garlic breath probably could raise the dead.
I have a funny feeling that Parrillada Mi Tio is the sort of place that will never mess with your steak and Quilmes (Argentine beer, $4.75 for a 16 oz. bottle)—you’re perfectly welcome to assume that the restaurant is just another solid Argentine steakhouse. I’ll wager that the beef is pretty much perfect at this place, no matter what you order. But if you feel like digging through the menu for a chivito—the restaurant’s one little reference to Uruguay—you won’t be disappointed… though anybody who comes near your stinkyass garlic mouth might not be all that impressed.
Parrillada Mi Tio (a.k.a. My Uncle’s Steakhouse)
89-08 Queens Blvd.
Subway: Grand Ave. or Woodhaven Blvd. (R, V trains)