SANTIAGO, Chile — Simply eating in Santiago is enough to make me want to return to the Chilean capital: I want to feel the seismic jolt from a cocktail called the Earthquake, succumb to deathly rich cookies and knots of sweet fried dough called twisted underpants, and find Zen in a frothy pisco sour.
Visits to star-rated restaurants of Santiago, where the freshest of seafood is canonized by innovative chefs borrowing influences from Peru, Argentina and Spain, were postponed. On this maiden two-day visit, I wanted the starchy comfort foods sorely missed by my hiking guides after a trek through Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia.
Their ground rules for my trip to Santiago, near the midpoint of this long noodle of a country on South America's western coast, were simple: Rely on Santiago's efficient light rail system to get around, organize noshing by major rail stops, and use soles instead of taxis because calories consumed vertically and in motion don't count.
Arriving in Santiago after seven days in Patagonia was a culture shock. Instead of a remote, tangled landscape and piercing stillness, there were leafy boulevards and food vendors hawking ice cream. Shoeshine vendors catered to seated gentlemen, and arm-in-arm couples upholstered lush parks.
So it begins
My late-afternoon arrival was timed perfectly for the local custom of onces, (pronounced own-sayss). It's Chile's cocktail hour for adults or snack time for kids. Thirst was quenched at Club Euro Happy (Cumming rail stop) in Barrio Brasil. This 1950s-style bar/cafe uses bookcases as a menu to display more than 300 bottles of beer. Just point to a label, then slide onto a sofa or stool (no Spanish necessary). Oddball brews from Russia and Belgium shared space with a Miller. Beers start at 2,000 Chilean pesos, or almost $4.
Dinner tended to Peruvian-style appetizers at Zanzibar (Escuela Militar rail stop) near the Vitacura neighborhood, where I stayed with a friend's family. Sculpted stacks of potato slices threaded with seafood and vegetables looked like mosaics. The Chilean Pisco Sour (a clear brandy, lemon juice, sugar, egg white) was lighter than Peru's, which uses bitters.
With my first night in the books, it was time to explore fresh markets the next day. I began at Mercado Central (Puente Cal y Canto rail stop).
Kiosks and restaurants vie for seating after 2 p.m. when the lunch crowd collides with strolling musicians. A hearty crab pie (pastel de jaiba) and shrimp empanadas at Restaurant Donde Augusto hit the spot; the bill for two was $20. Within easy walking distance of the protein palace was La Vega vegetable market (at the Patronato stop).
What a contrast: This sprawl of stalls dazzled the senses with aromas of fruits, flowers and juices in a fiesta of colors. Both markets open daily at 6 a.m. and close before 5 p.m.
Sugar lust was continually fueled at myriad bakeries. Among the standard-issue treats were a deep-fried, sugary knot of dough called twisted underpants (calzones rotos) and the ultra-decadent alfajores, a Latin American treat of crisp wafers glued by gobs of dulce de leche, then encircled by coconut or baked meringue.
A hankering for ice cream found too many choices at Emporio La Rosa (Bellas Artes rail stop). This chain advertises 40 ice cream flavors, on rotation, at eight outlets. Black pepper, my first choice, was not available. But rose petal, hazelnut and cherimoya (an ugly green fruit with avocado-like texture and pineapple flavor) assuaged any disappointment.
Then, fortified by calcium and carbs, I felt prepared for the infamous Earthquake (Terremoto), recommended by my college-age hiking guides and served at La Piojera, which translates as lice house (Plaza de Armas rail stop). This den of dim rooms and sawdust-strewn floors attracts a cross-section of humanity.
People bump elbows at sticky counters to chase cured-ham sandwiches with beer, chichi (fermented apple cider) and the Earthquake. What arrives in a tumbler is a layered marriage of pipeno (medium-sweet wine in tobacco hues), bitters and pineapple ice cream. Inhaling the scene while sipping this head-numbing concoction was a bargain (about $4) worth repeating.
Memories of eating pastel de choclo at Restaurant Galindo (Baquedano rail stop) made one guide homesick. This corner pub draws a crowd in the lively Barrio Bellavista neighborhood. Waiters sashay between cramped tables where a sea of shoulders hunch over platters of mixed grills, fried eggs and glistening potatoes. The family-size chicken/corn stew with a sweet cornmeal crust topped my faves list. Lunch for two with drinks came to $34.
My farewell onces was saved for Confiteria Torres (Los Heroes rail stop), the city's oldest cafe (circa 1879). The pisco sour arrived on a silver tray, a frothy zing of sweet and sour. The appetizers included thumb-size fried puffs (sopapillas) with an industrial-strength dipping sauce (pebre). I found heaven as dusk settled outside.