Chileans take their sandwiches – or rather sánguches – pretty seriously. There’s a whole range of nationally-specific sandwiches, some named after former presidents and all made with uniquely Chilean breads, that you can eat in just about any cafe in Santiago. People are partisans of their favourites and will go a long way to get the best ave palta (chicken and avocado) or barros luco (steak and cheese). They sound simple, but something about the bread, the local cheese, the amazing avocados and the ají chilies elevates these sandwiches to more than the sum of their parts. The most exciting Chilean sandwich of all is the chacarero, consisting of thinly sliced beef, avocado, tomatoes, green beans and ají. It might not (yet) have the international recognition of the bánh mì, the torta or the croque monsieur, but the chacarero deserves to take its place in the roster of the world’s truly great sandwiches.
Oddly enough, the first chacarero I had wasn’t in Chile but in Boston. There’s a hole in the wall place in Downtown Crossing that serves nothing but chacareros, run by a Chilean immigrant who clearly knows a gap in the market when he sees one. But my real introduction to the world of the chacarero was visiting Santiago with Mr Lemur, who is Chilean and thus feels very strongly about his national cuisine. (If I ever make the mistake of asking what he wants to eat, the answer will always be chacarero. I think he views the sánguche as a basic food group.) As we visited different neighbourhoods in Santiago, I began to suspect that tourist sites were less of an organising principle than sandwich cafes. We compared chacareros in chic Providencia, in an American-style shopping mall, and my favourite version at the Bar Inglés, near La Moneda. A major difference is the bread used, and the diner is sometimes given a choice among molde (sliced bread), frica (soft roll), or occasionally marraqueta (kind of like a Portuguese roll). I like the frica best, but it’s hard to replicate outside of Chile, so sliced bread is a good choice if you’re making your own.
The chacarero is obviously pretty easy to make, and the only real questions are which bread to use, which cut of beef, and which chiles. You can experience meat slide if you’re not careful so you don’t want beef that’s at all tough. I’ve used flank steak to good effect and also sirloin, but regardless of cut, you want to ask your butcher to slice the beef very thin. For a vegetarian version, you can just leave out the meat and still have a rocking sandwich. It would be pretty good with a fried portabella too. Bread is a little harder to replicate. I’ve found that a British soft roll is a decent replacement for frica, though ideally not the floury kind. A sourdough or chewy wholemeal loaf works well for the molde version. Burger baps are a bit too mealy, though, and baguettes can be too crusty. Lastly, the hot sauce: Chilean ají is not especially spicy but it is usually chopped fresh, which makes a brightly flavoured condiment. You could use a serrano or jalapeño instead, but since I didn’t have actual ají, I used sriracha, which is about the same spiciness level.
- 1 sirloin steak, sliced thin
- olive oil
- 1/2 tsp paprika
- 1 clove garlic
- large handful green beans
- 2 small tomatoes
- 1 avocado
- a squeeze of lemon
- small handful cilantro
- hot sauce
- sourdough bread
Crush the garlic and mix with a glug of olive oil, the paprika, and a good pinch of salt. Marinade the meat for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, boil the green beans till tender and then julienne. Put them in a bowl and mix with some oil and salt. Slice the tomato and salt it too.
Fry the steak in a nonstick pan for a minute on each side, or until done as you like it. Cut into 1 inch slices. Toast the bread. Mash the avocado into a spread and add salt and a little lemon juice.
To assemble the sandwich, spread a slice of bread generously with avocado, then layer on steak, tomatoes, and green beans. Top with cilantro leaves and hot sauce. Enjoy your entry into the wonderful world of the Chilean sánguche…