Before heading to Chile, Carménère wine, alcoholic ice cream floats and Chilean riffs on disco fries were high on my must-stuff-in-my-face agenda. However, sampling the famed chacarero sandwich from Santiago’s most well-known fuente de soda (the Chilean cousin of a greasy spoon) topped my list.
Composed of ingredients so thinly sliced they rival its skinny country of origin, the chacarero is surprisingly dense when fully stuffed. Perhaps the good half a cow’s worth of fried churrasco-style steak has something to do with it. Atop the meat mountain go thick-cut hunks of tomato (the chunkiest addition to the chacarero), followed by a vegetable that doesn’t typically scream “sandwich” — a fistful of vibrant green bean slivers that add a freshness and snap to what could otherwise be a heavy mess. Optional wafer-thin slices of green ají (chili pepper) subtly boost the flavor, and the whole thing is then (somewhat) contained by what Valparaíso native and gastro-blogger Andre Arriaza describes via email as the Chilean burger bun, aka pan amasado.
When you do finally get your gob around a truly sky-high, classic version of the chacarero, it’s a delicious mad mess waiting to happen.
The chacarero ascended into a whole new sphere of popularity outside its native Chile in 2014 when Time magazine ranked it as one of the world’s top 13 sandwiches. Before this seminal moment in sandwich history, Arriaza says he “barely found a foreigner who would know about it,” designating it instead as “an old-time favorite for locals.” But now you can find one at most Chilean diners and often in fancier restaurants, typically for around $8.
But when you do finally get your gob around a truly sky-high, classic version of the chacarero, it’s a delicious mad mess waiting to happen. (Although, in my iteration from La Fuente Alemana, the mayonnaise that was, quite frankly, poured atop the sandwich certainly helped bind the fillings together.) Slopping on your shirt is far better than tucking in with a knife and fork, though, like some kind of sandwich-eating heathen, or retreating to eat alone. After all, “Chileans love eating sandwiches,” Arriaza explains, and they serve as the social lubricant that inspires conversation between friends.
Even if you’re going solo in Chile, there’s typically a communal feel to the eating experience anyway. At La Fuente Alemana, diners sit at a bar hemming in the preparation area, watching eagerly as sandwich makers and servers in starchy white uniforms quickly knock together their order. But no retro sandwich shop can stop this quintessential, capital-city meal from feeling removed from its supposedly — “the origins of the sandwich are unknown,” Arriaza admits — rural roots.
The name chacarero itself, which likely derives from a Quechua word chacra (rural farm), has since slotted itself neatly into the regional Spanish of Chile. Chacarero, in turn, means “owner of the farm,” and as Arriaza explains, the bread and meat of the chacarero sandwich are therefore popularly (and, of course, symbolically, he hastens to add) interpreted as “the owner who uses produce from his or her farm.”
Regardless of the truth of the chacarero’s farm-to-fame backstory, devouring one (or three, in practically as many days, as I did) belongs at the top of any must-eat list when visiting Chile. Where else are you going to find a green beans–and–bread combo that works as well as this one?
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