In Philadelphia, it’s a cheesesteak. In New Orleans, a muffaletta. In Miami, a Cuban. In Chicago, a hot dog. And in Uruguay, it’s the chivito, which is often referred to as the South American country’s national dish. In a Sunday travel piece on capital city Montevideo, a New York Times writer described it as “perhaps the world’s most extravagant steak sandwich.” It has been 25 years since I last enjoyed a chivito, but just seeing the word in the story provoked a culinary memory that had me craving this unforgettable over-the-top cowabunga.
I immediately emailed the article to Alexia Cabrera, the Uruguayan woman who was in a frenzy of last-minute inspections and code approvals preparing to open Nola’s, her small café on West End Avenue that will feature a New Orleans-flavored menu—including the muffaletta. I attached a note, pleading with her to add a chivito to her menu. She wrote back. “Of course we will have the chivito. (I’m not sure about the egg on it. I don’t think Americans like that.) What do you think ?” I urged her to offer the egg as an option (the Hermitage Café does a pretty brisk late-night business with their hamburger à la egg) and asked that she let me know the minute she was open.
She opened the doors to Nola’s—in the storefront that most recently was Obie’s, in the same strip center where Vandyland resided for 75 years—last Wednesday, and while hordes of hungry folks weren’t exactly knocking down her door, she said she has been pleased with the walk-in traffic, many attracted by the rich brick-and-ocher painted walls adorned with vibrant murals by fellow Uruguayan Guillermo Diemarch and framed menus from well-known New Orleans restaurants. I dropped by on Thursday and ordered the chivito—with egg please.
Signature sandwiches are tough to replicate outside their areas of origin. Just ask anyone from Philly desperately seeking a cheesesteak in Nashville, or a Miamian hungry for a Cuban in Dallas. Frequently, the disconnect begins with the bread, which purists believe has much to do with the water used to make the dough. Having never been to Uruguay, I can’t say that Cabrera’s chivito is a 100 percent genuine re-creation, but I can testify that it is just as deliciously decadent as the ones I had in small South American restaurants in Greenwich Village years ago, and that, had Nola’s been open one month earlier, it surely would have won the Scene Writers’ Poll for Best Sandwich, hands down.
A chivito can be dressed with a wide range of accoutrements—among them olives, cheese, potatoes, roasted red peppers—but the foundation of the structure begins with a thick cut of marinated beef, seasoned and grilled. At Nola’s, a length of crusty French bread (baked for Cabrera by yet another of the 10 Uruguayans living in Nashville) is sliced through and stacked from the bottom up with sautéed onions, mushrooms and green peppers, roasted red pepper, a thick slice of bacon, the medium-rare steak, a fried egg, lettuce and tomato. The top slice of bread is smeared with mayonnaise, and the whole thing is speared with toothpicks to hold it together until you get it to your mouth, which you will have to open mighty wide to stretch around this hefty construction. It is sided by fries and a small ramekin of garlicky chimichurri, the herb sauce as common in Argentina as ketchup is in America. I took the chivito to go, and with just one half consumed standing over the counter in my kitchen, I beelined to the computer to email colleagues at the Scene, advising them to run, not walk, to 2912 West End Ave. and order “Chef’s Punta del Este Chivito, served ‘gaucho’s way.’ ” A cold beer would make the perfect complementary beverage and is available on-site. (Bring your own wine for now.)
Restaurants in Uruguay that specialize exclusively in the sandwich are referred to as chiviterias. Nola’s—with a lunch and dinner menu that offers an inclusive range of New Orleans cuisine—is not that, but the chivito is sure to become its calling card.
Nola’s, 2912 West End Ave., 341-3693. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.