Santiago may be the most underrated city in South America. Backpackers often advise one another to get out of Santiago right after touching ground in Chile and head immediately to the north or south. Chile’s capital, some argue, is full of crowds, smog and stray dogs. But travellers seeking a taste of local life would be remiss to skip Santiago’s lively cultural centre.
The way into Santiago’s heart is through its appetite. So, here are five places where the locals go to eat, drink and be merry, that defy the common prejudice against Chile’s largest city.
You could spend hours strolling through La Vega Central, a bustling market of colourful produce and freshly butchered meats off the beaten path from Santiago’s historic centre. On one end of La Vega, a “jugos naturales” stand blends up some of the tastiest juices in the city, made with fresh strawberries, bananas, chirimoyas (custard apples), raspberries, peaches and anything else in season. The smell of sweet fruit competes with the savoury aromas of street foods being cooked nearby, including sopaipillas, deep-fried pumpkin dough; humitas, mixtures of corn, onions and lard wrapped in corn husks and boiled; and, mote con huesillo, an indigenous drink made of husked wheat, stewed peaches and a lot of sugar.
More hearty dishes of indigenous origin can be found in La Vega Chica, a collection of tiny restaurant stalls that are often packed to the brim with locals. These restaurants, located on the east side of the entire La Vega complex, serve up comfort foods prepared just as they are in Chilean homes. One typical dish is cazuela, a light-broth soup with chicken, Chilean pumpkin, a bit of corn on the cob, potato, carrots and onions. Another to try is charquicán, a stew of beef, potatoes and Chilean pumpkin, topped with a fried egg.
Chile’s long coastline lends itself to fresh seafood from top to bottom of the tall, thin country. Even the landlocked capital is a seafood destination. In Barrio Providencia, a simple but elegant hole-in-the-wall called Las Conchitas, meaning “shells”, (Av. Los Leones 2500, Providencia), has served classic Chilean seafood dishes since the 1980s. Start with caldillo de congrio (conger eel soup) or chupe de mariscos, a completely unique porridge-like stew made with mussels. Then, try the perfectly grilled corvina, a white fish often referred to as sea bass (although it is not the same fish as the Chilean sea bass that is exported to other countries but known locally as Patagonian toothfish). Dinner is best accompanied by wine made in the valley. Try Chile’s signature Carmeñere, a red wine that pairs nicely with seafood.
It was President Arturo Alessandri who gave La Piojera its name in 1922, albeit inadvertently. After being invited to visit the working class bar, a Santiago institution since 1916, Alessandri exclaimed disgustedly that he had been brought to a piojera, or “house of fleas”. Today, the Flea House is just as divey as it ever was. The mark of a truly Chilean bar, its walls are laden in “homemade” graffiti – signatures, messages, drawings, chicken scratch and obscenities scrawled all over the restaurant by patrons both drunk and sober. If you speak a bit of Spanish – and even if you do not -- La Piojera is a great place to make friends with strangers. During the day, elderly men drink together and recount tales of their youth. At night, a younger, rowdier crowd takes over, and is joined by live guitar and accordion music. Look around and you will notice that many people are sipping the same odd-looking drink. La Piojera is famous for its terremoto, or “earthquake”, a mix of sweet wine, bitter liqueur and a huge scoop of pineapple ice cream. Despite the ice cream, it is considered quite a masculine drink. If you order a second round, be prepared to get a replica, or “aftershock”, at half the size.
Another graffiti-covered local favourite is El Caramaño, a restaurant that has been in Barrio Bellavista since 1982. This dive serves up authentic, bare-bones Chilean food that unexpectedly shines. The pastel de choclo, or “corn cake”, is the perfect example. Baked in a clay bowl, Chile’s answer to Shepard’s Pie has a filling of ground beef, onions, olives and hard-boiled egg, with top layer of corn that is sweet and crunchy on the outside and warm and gooey underneath. A similar filling goes into the traditional Chilean empanadas de pino (ground beef turnovers), but at El Caramaño, the pastry shell is crisp and flaky instead of soft and glossy.
No trip to Santiago is complete without a night of pisco sours and piscolas (pisco + cola). In Santiago centro, El Diablito (Little Devil), provides the perfect atmosphere to sip drinks, smoke cigarettes and chat with the new friends you just made. The vintage décor of records, record players, collectibles and old sketches matches the mood set by candles and dim chandeliers. For something different, try the vaina cocktail, a kind of eggnog made with cognac, cacao and port.