As much as I love Santiago, I can’t possibly describe it as a “culinary paradise.” In fact, until two or three years ago, being hungry was a source of stress. Like most tourists, we had a sopa de mariscos at the Mercado Central. We tried the Peruvian restaurants as well, where food is good, if pricey. After that, our “innovative” dinner experiences included:
- hot dogs at the hot dog portal (interesting atmosphere and cheap, but… yeah, sausage and bun smothered in sauce)
- non-hot-dog options on the menu in hot dog restaurants (this went about as well as expected—I remember a “tomato salad” that was just one chopped tomato)
- Chinese restaurants (fairly bland, standard Chinese” classics adapted to local taste, i.e. 100% non spicy)
- Salchipapas (fries with pan-fried sausage chopped on top, which isn’t exactly dinner in my book)
- Barros Jarpa, grilled cheese and ham on white bun (… I travelled all the way to Chile for THAT?!…)
And then, three years ago, we found out that instead of staying in hotels, we could rent a small apartment for the same price. Since we now had a fridge, a stove, a microwave and a kettle, we started going to the supermarket.
Miracle. The aisles weren’t just full of sausages and hot dog buns. For instance, I discovered the pleasure of buying fresh-out-of-the oven Chilean bread, like marraqueta or hallula. With a microwave, I could also warm up meat empanadas and I adopted the traditional Chilean empanada de pino—a seasoned mixture of ground beef, onions, raisins and black olives, topped with a slice of hard-boiled egg. We discovered La Vega for giant corn and other fruits and veggies. I fell in love with the traditional pan de huevo for desert. Lately, Peruvian, Argentinian, Venezuelan and Colombian immigrants brought a few new specialties to Santiago as well.
There’s some good food in Santiago. Just don’t always expect it from sit-down restaurants—explore the streets instead of reading menus.
For instance, I just came back from Calle Catedral where I bought two freshly baked cachitos for 200 pesos ($US 0.30). Did I go to a bakery? Nope. I picked them up from a cardboard box. How did I know there were cachitos for sale? Duh, I heard it. Literally. The guy was shouting “¡CACHITOS! ¡PANCITOS!” Did I know what a “cachito” was? Absolutely not. But there were right in front of me and I made an educated guess—Peruvian egg bread.
Everywhere you go in Santiago, especially around lunch time, dinnertime and close to highly transited subway stations like Baquedano, Cal y Canto and Santa Ana, you’ll see vendors with coolers, supermarket carts or cardboard boxes. They sell hand rolls, cut fruits, empanadas, leche asada (the Chilean “flan”), cake, pop corn, sandwiches, fruit juices, fried chicken, ceviche, papas rellenas, humitas (corn baked inside corn husks), anticuchos (skewers of grilled meat), sopaipillas (fried pumpkin-and-flour dough), churros, brazo de reina (Swiss roll usually filled with manjar, the Chilean caramel), cuchuflis (hollow roll of airy wafer filled with manjar)… For a Peruvian, Colombian or Venezuelan full meal for less than $2 (including soup and rice to eat standing in the street), there’s Calle Catedral. And for vegan options with a cannabis cake for dessert, there Santa Lucía, Lastarria and Plaza Italia (when the carabineros aren’t looking).
Buying street food might feel like a leap of faith—I draw the line at raw fish—but vendors take their role seriously and after all, you have no idea how clean restaurant kitchens are. It’s also easy to see how fresh the food is, and how popular it is.
Santiago doesn’t have the variety of Brazilian cuisine, and for a fancy restaurant experience, you’d better off going to Buenos Aires. But unless you’re Mark, you don’t have to stick to hot dogs—there are better options!