I was pretty excited when a rare purveyor of relatively obscure ethnic food showed up in Midtown East. Usually, Midtown East is a sterile land of Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, lame corner delis, Starbucks, nondescript pizza-by-the-slice, and Starbucks (affectionately known to locals as “Fivebucks”). But then a Chilean restaurant called Barros Luco came to town.
Except for one little potential problem: rumor has it that Chilean food really sucks.
When I went to Chile as an exchange student in the late 1990s, both Chileans and foreigners were fond of saying that Chile was South America’s version of Great Britain: the beer is warm, the food is cold and crappy, and the people are also cold and crappy. Four months later, I was pretty convinced that everybody who told me that was crazy: I thought that Chileans were unbelievably welcoming, and I don’t think I ever had a warm beer… although I rarely bothered with beer, since Chilean wine and pisco (an Andean version of grape brandy) were so cheap and tasty.
But part about crappy, cold Chilean food? Definitely a small grain of truth there… but just a grain. If you walk through the streets of Santiago, you’ll mostly see variations on American fast food: hamburgers, French fries, fried chicken, and the ubiquitous Chilean completo, which is a hotdog topped with sauerkraut, mayonnaise, and avocado. Cheap Chilean fast food was often served lukewarm and it was always served with mayonnaise, which is one of the very few food items that I detest—I’d rather eat pig intestines than a lukewarm hamburger slathered with mayonnaise. And unfortunately for me, mayonnaise-drenched hamburgers and hotdogs seemed to be the national dishes of Chile… or at least the easiest foods to find on the streets of Santiago if you only had a buck or two in your pocket.
I wasn’t a generally huge fan of “Chileanized” American fast food, but I somehow developed a strange love affair with a McDonalds hamburger served only in Chile: the magnificent McPalta. “Palta” is the Chilean word for avocado, and Chilean McDonalds franchisees wisely created a hamburger slathered with the stuff. I usually avoid McDonalds like the plague (notice that this blog is not called “United Nations of Fast Food”), but avocado-smeared burgers were amazing.
So I had a funny love-hate relationship with Chilean food. McPalta aside, I hated the fast food. But there was another, absolutely beautiful side to Chilean cuisine: the fruit was amazing, the bakeries were the best I’d encountered this side of Russia, and the salmon was absolutely breathtaking. I pretty much lived on bread, cheese, wine, and fruit, with an occasional splurge on a nice piece of grilled salmon. I lived with a host family that fed me fruit salad and fresh bread smeared with avocado for breakfast every morning, and I absolutely loved it. I was crazy about pastel de choclo (a corn-based variation on chicken pot pie), cherimoya (a funny, flaky green fruit that I’d never seen in the United States), mote con huesillo (a cold slurry of barley, peaches, and sugar), and baked empanadas de pino (stuffed with beef, olives, onions, raisins, and boiled eggs). Great stuff.
OK, enough of the trip-down-memory-lane bullpoop. There’s Chilean food in my crappy Midtown neighborhood! And that’s exciting, at least by Midtown culinary standards.
Perhaps foolishly, I went to Barros Luco alone on my first visit, and that meant that my urge to sample the entire menu was in direct conflict with the tragic fact that I only have one stomach. I had to order a completo, of course—even though I never really liked them. There was no way I would pass up an empanada de pino, since I always loved them when I was in Chile. And since the restaurant is called Barros Luco, I felt obligated to try the eponymous house dish, a toasted sandwich with ground beef and fontina cheese.
The completo ($3.75)—even without mayonnaise—was only a little bit more appealing than I’d remembered. I’m not knocking Barros Luco here; I’m just not a huge fan of hotdogs on puffy, bleached-white buns. It was partially rescued by the sauerkraut and avocado, though. I mean, really, how bad is any sandwich—hotdog or otherwise—that has nearly an entire avocado smashed on it? I ate the whole thing. Do I deserve a cookie for cleaning my plate?
Sadly, nobody was around to give me a cookie after I finished my completo, so I devoured half of an empanada and most of the Barros Luco sandwich ($6.29) instead. The Barros Luco was a fairly simple dish—just chopped steak and cheese toasted
between two crispy discs of Chilean bread. Tasty enough, though I’m not sure that it was quite good enough to be the signature dish of a successful restaurant.
Fortunately, the baked empanada de pino ($5) was far more impressive (though I think we’ll agree that “Empanada de Pino” is probably a less-catchy name for a restaurant). It was a bit runty for the price, but otherwise it was exactly what a good Chilean empanada should be: a crusty envelope of joy, filled with a salty slurry of beef, black olives, boiled egg, and golden raisins. I may never come around on Chilean completos, but I couldn’t be happier to see a good empanada de pino liven up the Midtown East ethnic food scene.
300 East 52nd St. @ 2nd Avenue, Midtown East
Subway: 51st Street (6 train), Lexington-53rd (E, M trains)