Overland miles: 8670 Bus hours: 268.25 Empanadar: 32
The region of Patagonia in southern Chile and Agentina is not simply known for its prodigious quantities of fish – salmon, trout, hake and congrio (conger eel) – and seafood – oysters, mussels and centolla. Meat, sausages and a glass or two of wine play a fundamental part in the daily diet, so in this post we’re going to Patagonian grilled meat – both sandwiched in a roll (Chileans love their bread) and roasted on the spit.
Having just landed in wind-whipped Punta Arenas after a hellish 12 hour flight to the end of the world, we needed somewhere warm to hunker, a couple of beers and comfort food. Luckily, we found all three is the form of Lomitos, aka Lomit’s: the home of Lomitos (thickly piled meat sandwiches, similar to Mexican tortas) in Southern Patagonia.
Inside the packed, creaking diner it’s a beguiling mix of an Angus Steakhouse and the bar from Cheers: stained glass lampshades hang low over worn leatherette booths running around the vast retro restaurant. In front stands the imposing sandwich counter, filled to overflowing with salad, avocado and a veritable mountain of sliced American cheese. Then you meet the mountain of meat – groaning trays of chicken, beef, pork loin and a frankly frightening pile of frankfurters.
Above the counter a large illuminated board proudly proclaims that they have schop. Oh my sainted aunts: real, locally brewed tap lager, available in 350 ml and half litre sizes and served in frosted glasses. It might have been sleep deprivation that caused my knees to buckle and my my bottom lip to tremble; it might have been love. Clare quickly escorted me to the last free booth behind the door, and I sunk down into the giving seats, knowing I was home.
I had been hankering for a steak and onions fix for a while, having eschewed meat in favour of ceviche whilst in Lima, so I ordered Churasco al pobre – a sandwich comprising both those elements, plus a fat slice of that decadent cheese. For extra goo factor I added in some mushed avocado, although I needn’t have worried: Chileans love adding as much mayonnaise as they can to their sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs and pretty much anything else calling for a topping. There’s a limit to the love you can pour on meat with the aid of whipped egg yolk, as I think the following image, taken at a lesser lomito joint in Valdivia, will prove:
Luckily, Lomitos held back on the mayonesa and the meaty creation passed the first and most important test – it held together during the grapple. The beef was still tender while retaining its bite, and its taste factor was like something Mr. T would pack in his lunchbox. The schop, made by Austral, a local producer of Germanic beers and the southernmost brewery in the world (you’re not anything if you’re not the most southern example of it round here), was light and hoppy with a good frothy head: the perfect sandwich partner.
Clare chose to roadtest Lomit’s signature dish, the Lomito completo. Naturally I had to taste it, and having done so, we needed to come back. Chock full of all the restaurant’s best ingredients: juicy chunks of grilled pork loin, mayo, salad, mayo, avocado and just a few dollops more mayo, this was definitely the heavy hitter in the joint – the one to beat. For some reason the ‘complete’ version doesn’t come with cheese, although it clearly should do, and I added it in as a scene-stealing extra. Clare, for variety’s sake ordered a chicken sandwich, which was almost as moreish as the churasco.
And of course, purely in the name of independent research, we needed to return a third time to test the hot dogs. These were the only disappointing additions to a stellar menu: again, too much mayo and avocado swamped the (at best) half-hearted flavour of the sausage. Despite their German credentials, the one thing Patagonia hasn’t grasped is how to make the Percy frankfurter. So for us, it’s Lomit’s lomitos all the way.
Once we’d recovered from our carb coma, we decided to check out some of the spit roast lamb we’d seen slowly cooking in the window of numerous restaurants. Patagonian lamb is quickly gaining fame in Europe as the new star of Latin American cuisine. Even the UK’s Hairy Bikers have got in on the act. Argentinian exporters claim this on account of its competitive price on the international market, plus the fact that Argentinian sheep get to graze freely on good quality, natural grasses, making it less fatty.
But naturally reared meat is prohibitively dear in inflation-wracked Argentina these days, so Prawns for Breakfast was chuffed when we discovered a few lamb-loving Chilean parillas like Picado Carlitos in Puerto Natales. With a healthier economy than their next-door neighbours, Chile’s meat is comparatively inexpensive when sold for domestic consumption. Determined to beat the Argies at their own game, Chile even puts on annual festivals dedicated to the hallowed art of barbecuing whole skewered lamb, like Pucon’s Feria del Cordero in the Lakes District.
We decided to check out Picado Carlitos, a busy family restaurant that had been recommended to us by a local. Staffed with harried waiters lacking time for pleasantries, this place offered numerous ways to try carne asado (grilled meat), but the Parillada mixto (mixed grill for two) was the most affordable way to sample Patagonian lamb. When we arrived the lamb had already been removed from its ritual window display where up to three skewers can be arranged, tent-like over open coals. The rich scent of smoked garlic and brown sugar lingered heavy in the cool evening air.
The mixed grill platter was a meat-lover’s paradise. It provided us with the chance to tackle the famed lamb plus pork, veal, chicken and three sausages including rich morcilla, plus boiled potatoes, chips and a side salad for 15, 000 pesos (US $27).
As I’ve said before, these guys know how to entertain. When you look at how the dish appeared to us in the flesh, so to speak, try to remember that the waiter had already dropped a large lamb chop on his way to our table. (It’s cool: another one found its way home 15 minutes later).
So did the Patagonian flock rock? These cuts had an almost grainy texture, tender and rich without the fattiness with which lamb is often associated. Naturally I would argue that Chilean lamb can’t hold a candle to its English equivalent, but we did our best to devour this dish: lamb is rarely available in Latin America. And yet despite our craving for fresh meat, this was a difficult beast to conquer. Let’s be clear: I rarely call for a doggy bag in restaurants. But needs must when the devil spit roasts. So if you’re in the region, be sure to check out this plentiful platter, but bring a few hungry mates for the ride.