Ode to the Chilean Sandwich

Our geography in Chile forces travel: from south to north, and vice versa, comes wine, fruit, milk, and meat. Along with food and goods Chileans themselves also travel, as if part of a long and fertile ant colony. This was the case between Santiago and Valparaiso in the middle of last century. In the short stops of a steam train trajectory the products of every town – mostly cheeses and dried meats – were tucked into a bun; a convenient snack that was then called “pan de viaje.” Later its name became sandwich, thanks to the British heritage in Valparaiso, and eventually sánguche, thanks to our habit of Chileanizing words.

Through the travels and cultural shifts that occurred, Chilean popular cooking became established, bringing together farmers with American, British, German, and even French influences and bread. Sánguches began to be offered in bars, restaurants, and fuente de sodas, which in various cases such as Confitería Torres or Fuente Alemana, were sold using recipes that gradually led to the classical sanguchería menu that every Chilean can recite today as if it were the national anthem.

The Chilean sandwich today is a vestige of that original journey. It grew up and ceased to be portable, requiring a table or bar, plate, cutlery, and a pile of paper napkins. Perhaps it embodies a dream fulfilled to stop traveling, to finally sit quietly and eat. When done right it is so disastrous and unmanageable that it requires about 25 minutes of concentration to coordinate the cerebral hemispheres and dedicate oneself to the task of mastering a monster roaring with mayonnaise and avocado. It is not a pan de viaje anymore; it’s a pan de quedarse. That’s what sets it apart from the rest of the sandwiches of the world and the first thing to understand when first faced with a Chilean sandwich: it is not portable and it will take a while to eat. Nobody in their right mind would think of scarfing down a a full steak in the car or while walking.

When one of these sandwiches reaches your hands it looks like a Rothko painting: colored layers of varying thicknesses and textures, but eating it feels like a Pollock that’s disastrous and harmonious at the same time. We like melted cheese, mashed avocado, and mayonnaise that grossly overflows and leaks out of the bread, the dish, and the world, because we love mayonnaise and avocado and cheese sandwiches and without them life would be meaningless. However, there is sufficient reason for such abundance: all other ingredients in our sandwiches are quite meager. There’s pork loin, lean slices of briefly sautéed beef, ham, rib cap, sauerkraut, tomatoes, green beans. Fat is essential. There is only one (and wonderful) exception: El Chacarero, the seasonal sandwich with slices of sautéed beef, tomatoes, green beans and ají cristal, all summer ingredients from the farm (or garden), hence the name.

We venerate the good sangucherías because this is a part of the Chilean kitchen that is hardly prepared at home. Rather it is found only in restaurants, fuente de sodas, and street carts whose modus operandi is governed by rituals and codes, implied yeas and nays. Fairness and transparency are crucial. In the traditional Fuente Alemana and branches of Fuente Mardoqueo, bright lights, stainless steel, and pristine uniforms suggest that someone is going to give birth at the any moment. Behind the bar, there are women or are there are men; a mixed sanguchería is not common. When there are women they keep a low profile; no other hierarchy than that granted by seniority of service or life. The master male sanguchero, in turn, transmits a joyful, rounded authority. From the steaming grill he learns of everything that happens in his kingdom, the fuente de soda. He’s always serious and concentrated, though there is always  a joke that’s skin deep. Where do I find him? In Lomit’s in Providencia or at La Terraza in Metro Baquedano.

Eating sandwiches in this world of tradition, trying to determine how the system works within each sangucheria, is certainly a significant part of the overall experience. In practice though, how do you actually order a sandwich in Chile? Its components are ordered according to rules that bring about a colorful debate, although there are some variations depending on the style of the fuente de soda, season, and geographical location. The basic structure has three components: bread, meat, and a predetermined combination of condiments. There are usually a minimum of four meats to choose from in any sanguchería, all lightly seasoned, such as pork tenderloin, steak, chicken, hamburger or fricandela, beef tongue, ham, pernil, mechada, or potito. There are classic combinations (Italiano, completo, dynamico), each with a predetermined mix of ingredients dominated by, among many others, tomatoes, sauerkraut, avocado, and mayonnaise. I’m certain that the latter two are the secret lubricants of Chilean social machinery. You must also choose between several types of bread: frica, molde, marraqueta, or amasado, the first two being the most common. The bread is always made that day and is lightly toasted. Another option is to completely customize the sandwich to your liking, choosing from the list of ingredients that usually appears on the menu.

Apart from this, there are the ubiquitous classics: Barros Jarpa (ham and melted cheese), Barros Luco (steak and melted cheese), Chacarero (steak, tomatoes, green beans, ají cristal), Ave Palta (chicken avocado), Chemilico (steak with fried egg), and Churrasco Marino are the most common. The latter, with fried merluza (hake) and tomato salad with onion and ají cristal, is typical of northern Chile (and one of my favorites) and can be tasted in Santiago at Liguria, Las Lanzas, and Ciudad Vieja.

While sacred and permanent, our sandwich menu is renewed again and again with the opening of new sangucherías, the majority of which tend to find quick success. In this area, the Chilean never tires of trying new sandwiches and is curiously open to change. Ciudad Vieja, La Maestranza, and La Superior are examples of high-quality, creative proposals. José Ramón, Danés, and Las Cabras represent innovation that’s set in tradition. The latter, opened less than two years ago, has captured the attention of international media, like Saveur and The New York Times, because of its nostalgic aesthetic and finely made traditional cuisine.

Another alternative to the popular sangucherías are mercados and ferías. Some of them stand out for their own recipes, favorites of those working there. In La Vega Central de Santiago are the famous sánguches de arrollado y palta with sopaipilla (a fried dough made of squash) instead of bread at La Marita, or that delicious sandwich made of potito (the less than glamorous cow’s rectum) at La Picá del Licho, where every morning homemade mayonnaise is whipped with love.

Where to start? It’s simple: ask a Chilean friend to drive you to their favorite sánguche; they will not steer your wrong. Another option is to venture to one of the more traditional places from the list above, and then to one of the more innovative ones. A third suggestion is perhaps the most practical: take the tour of sandwiches from Food Trip Chile. Over three hours at three key sangucherías for six sandwiches is enough to begin to understand the Chilean sánguche.