All hail the chivito – the national sandwich of Uruguay!

This post comes with a parental warning. It contains food writing at its most obscene. Please put the children to bed lest they
look over your shoulder at the dirty pictures. With any luck they are too young to read.

Now sit back, pour yourself a cocktail (unless you’re at your desk, in which case you may just prefer to take a nip at your flask) and let me tell you about the mighty chivito – the national sandwich of Uruguay. (By the way, a shout out to loyal reader Phillip Shaw, whose timing was impeccable – he sent me a note about the chivito as I was in line to buy one.)

Uruguay, you say? What happened to Buenos Aires? We wanted a little time at the beach and this was the closest, cheapest way to do that. The sleepy town of Colonia, Uruguay sits across the mouth of the Rio Plato from the Argentine capitol, an hour away by ferry.

Cobbly, quaint Colonia, sleeping peacefully.

Cobbly, quaint Colonia, sleeping peacefully.

The river then empties into the South Atlantic. It’s the strangest body of water I’ve ever encountered. It’s a thirty mile wide fresh water, well, thing, that’s about ten feet deep. You could almost walk across it to Buenos Aires, which we can see way off in the distance from our twelfth floor apartment. The water is muddy brown, which might put you off, but it’s entirely pleasant to wade in from one of its quiet sandy beaches. So it’s not really the beach, but it will do in a pinch.

A perfectly nice beach!

A perfectly nice beach!

Colonia was so close yet so far. We got to the dock early, which was lucky, because our 1:15 ferry was cancelled and we were able to get on the 12:15, although we were then informed that it would be delayed until 1. There was a line to get onto the boat, but the poor saps who obeyed the rules were outnumbered badly by the throng that just rushed the door when the departure was announced. It was mayhem. I blame this on poor governance.

The boat made a nifty one hour trip across the water. Upon landing, we just sat there. There was much confusion about whether, when, or how we might get off the boat. About half an hour after landing, somebody made an announcement, which was met with sarcastic applause and then…nothing happened. After more waiting, people were allowed to make a mad dash for the exits. With sincerely jangled nerves, we finally made it ashore.

The town itself could be quieter but I’m not sure how. For four bucks (although thanks to the vagaries of demand pricing the ferry can cost as much as fifty, if you can believe it) you can travel from crazy BA to the town that time forgot. Colonia has many charms. You can get U.S. dollars from the ATM, and there’s one exchange rate – no blue rate to make you crazy. It’s full of history. In fact, we wandered by this store and saw a family that looked amazingly like us. Apparently we have Uruguayan relatives deep in our past.

Janine, Maggie and I were astonished at the amazing resemblance we bore to this distinguished Uruguayan family.

Janine, Maggie and I were astonished at the amazing resemblance we bore to this distinguished Uruguayan family.

You can sit on a flat sandy beach, you can wander little cobblestone streets, you can have a cocktail at a cute little restaurant that has great appetizers and mystifyingly bad entrees as you watch the world’s most beautiful sunset, and you can watch people wander the streets lugging their thermoses and sipping maté through a metal straw.

This man is carrying his thermos of water, which he uses to refill his mate cup. Apparently, this drink also keeps you thin.

This man, like so many other people in this town, is carrying his thermos of water, which he uses to refill his maté cup, which he sips at through a metal straw while walking down the street. Apparently, this drink also keeps you thin.

We even stumbled across a parade led by a man in very high heels.

Just another day in Colonia. In addition to an excellent national sandwich, Uruguay has progressive laws on abortion and same sex marriage to boot.

Just another day in Colonia. In addition to the world’s finest national sandwich, Uruguay has progressive laws on abortion and same sex marriage to boot.

You can walk the length of Colonia in about fifteen minutes. There’s a charming little marina and the people are amazingly polite. Oh, and you can eat a chivito.

Yes, it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for, the chivito.

This sandwich is like nothing I’ve ever seen, or eaten. Chivito means little goat, but there’s no actual goat in it. Why little goat? Who cares? The sandwich has been hardening arteries in Uruguay for seventy years or so, and you can get one on every single street in this town. What is it? What isn’t it? It’s a layer of thin sliced filet mignon with ham, melted cheese, a fried egg, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and about a dozen condiments including pickled vegetables, marinated peppers, olives, peas, carrots, and a bunch of other stuff I couldn’t identify. The whole shebang is served on a massive bun, which, if it does its job right (and it seldom does) stays together for at least two or three minutes before yielding to the pressure of its outsized contents and disintegrating into a pile of stuff in front of you.

There is another sandwich that takes the chivito to another, even more sinister, level – the Milanesa. In the Milanesa, instead of a thin slice of filet, they insert a hubcap-sized portion of breaded, fried chicken or steak that hangs over the rest of the sandwich like a diving board.

That’s right, they take all that stuff and add a piece of deep fried meat to it. Mike Bloomberg, bless him, will never set foot in Uruguay for this reason alone.

As this barely-safe-for-work photo will prove, the result is absolutely obscene.

Here it is, in all its glory, the chivito! (Actually this is a Milanesa with chivito fillings, but whatever.)

Here it is, in all its glory, the chivito! (Actually this is a Milanesa with chivito fillings, but whatever.)

The equally obscene cutaway shot.

The equally obscene cutaway shot, taken from our balcony.

I had three of these in three days this week. If I stay in this town for much longer, I will have to be loaded by crane onto a barge and evacuated for my own protection. I secretly suspect my wife is contacting the producers of some intervention reality show as I type.

Praise the lord and pass the statins – our pilgrimage to the mecca of meat, Peter Luger.

Oh, I sing a song of meat.

Not just any meat, mind you, but the meat of the gods. Peter Luger meat.

If you are a vegetarian, or heaven forbid a vegan, I beg you to turn away. This will not be pretty, and I don’t want you to hate me. Come back some other day, when I write an essay about the glories of carrots or yeast, or somesuch. I have deep respect for your excellent choices, but as my beloved former boss Paul Brest used to say, if god had meant us to be vegetarians, he wouldn’t have made animals out of meat.

I can’t tell you how many times I have made my way across the Williamsburg Bridge and been tantalized by the glimpse of what may be the world’s greatest steakhouse, Peter Luger. There it sat, lurking beneath the bridge, beckoning to the hungry, the gluttonous, or to the seekers of meaty self-actualization. Someday, I would often think, I’ll have a Peter Luger steak. And yet nearly a half century went by and I failed to keep my promise.

Why didn’t I just go, you may ask? There were any number of reasons. For many years I would have had to sell my baseball card collection and a few quarts of blood just to make it past the shrimp cocktail. And for heaven’s sake, it was in BROOKLYN, and in Williamsburg, no less. But times have changed in oh so many ways. I’m all grown up with gainful employment (sort of) and Williamsburg is the BOMB. And if you have been following my recent journey, you will know that I am finding any opportunity I can to go back and either perfect the past or fine tune the future. I recommend it, by the way. When we decided to spend part of our trip in New York, I swore to myself that we would at long last make it to Peter Luger.

What’s so special about this place? Certainly not the décor. It’s a room. It has wood floors, it’s nice, it’s old, but if they didn’t make steaks that made you want to weep, you wouldn’t think twice. The waiters wear long aprons, which bring to mind a Bemelmans sketch, so that’s nice, but still.

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Nothing fancy. A little too bright, a little plain, but just right.

No, what’s special is the meat. They buy these fancy, shmancy USDA Prime cuts of beef and then hang them in some special room for a month until they get good and funky and covered in mold (good mold, they say). They say that this concentrates the flavors. Then they hack off the mold (I assume) and cut up the hunks of beef into steaks on the day they’re going to serve them. The cut of choice at Peter Luger is the porterhouse, or what you and I know as the t-bone. The t-bone has a piece of filet mignon on one side of the bone and the strip steak on the other. Then they take your t-bone and throw it in an 800 degree broiler that creates a crust that you could stand on, but which leaves the inside a very comfortable medium rare. Don’t be afraid. The steak looks really rare, but with all that aging and tenderizing and whatever else they do to it, you won’t die. On the other hand, if you were to order your steak well done I suspect that the rotting corpse of Herr Luger himself would rise up out of the floor and strangle you with his moldy hands, and good for him I say.

So they take this crazy good meat and blast it with a krillion degrees of heat and then they start improving on it. When it comes out of the oven, they slice for you, which coaxes the juices onto the platter, at which time they drown the whole operation in a stick of butter, which somehow never undermines the structural integrity of that magical crust. The salty, fatty, buttery sauce seems to wick its way back into the steak through some kind of magical capillary action. The filet mignon becomes the foie gras of meat – livery and tender and spectacular. When I took my first bite I groaned. The strip is marbled and fatty and ridiculous.

Quite simply, the world's greatest steak.

Quite simply, the world’s greatest steak.

By this point, every cardiologist in the tri-state region orders a new Mercedes. They serve your steak with a boat of Luger’s famous steak sauce and a defibrillator. For dessert, you can order the carrot cake or a bowl of Lipitor.

I might add that the sleeper of the evening was the creamed spinach. Mercifully, they seemed to go easy on the cream, but somehow found a way to make the spinach even spinachier. I think they put spinach on the menu at steakhouses as a joke, but Lugar’s doesn’t mess around. If they’re going to serve spinach it will be the best damn steakhouse spinach of the plant. We order the mysterious bottle of private label Peter Luger Napa Cab that was, as everything else was, right on the money.

And how do I describe the steak? It’s easy. It was the best damn piece of meat I’ve ever eaten. I went back and read some reviews and some of the jaded restaurant critics crapped and moaned about indifferent service or the fact that they don’t take credit cards (although they take debit cards and who doesn’t have one of those?) or their location or some other cranky pants minor infraction. But my good god people, this is one of those instances in which somebody has perfected a task that requires time, money, and skill, and for that I am eternally grateful.

The happy couple, right before the paramedics came.

The happy couple, right before the paramedics came.

And for the record our waiter Ivan was funny and sassy and we wanted to take him home with us. Like our friend Larry from Russ and Daughters, he knew that what he was feeding us was poetry and he was damn proud of it.

On the other hand, there are any number of fussy, expensive, self-important places that send the gastronorati into a frothy frenzy but which then close before we can remember what we ate. Don’t get me wrong, I like hipster food as much as the next guy, but if you gave me twelve hours to live and made me pick a last meal, it might just be a Luger steak, the mystery cab, and that crazy spinach.