While growing up in Uruguay, Ramiro Lescano never imagined having a restaurant in Brooklyn. When he was in his early twenties, he grew tired of his economic studies in Montevideo and decided to visit friends in New York. He ended up staying, and making Williamsburg his home. After working in restaurants for a few years, and growing tired of having to go to Queens for a taste of Uruguayan food, he and his friend Diego Perez-Olave decided to open Tabaré, their own Uruguayan restaurant, in Williamsburg.
We stopped by to talk with Ramiro, to learn a little about Uruguayan cuisine, and to try Tabaré’s version of the chivito – a steak sandwich named after a goat, that can be found everywhere in Uruguay, from the finest restaurants to stalls on the street
So Ramiro, what should we have today?
I think if you’re going to try one thing here at Tabaré, it would have to be the chivito completo. It’s a traditional Uruguayan sandwich made with filet mignon of grass-fed beef, bacon, black forest ham, mozzarella, caramelized onion, roasted red peppers, green Spanish olive, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. And also, it’s topped with a fried egg. It’s a very, very good sandwich.
The chivito is basically the most classic Uruguayan dish you can find. Most of our cuisine, we share with Argentina. The cuisine of Buenos Ares and the surrounding area is very much the same as the cuisine in Uruguay. Buenos Ares is right next to Uruguay, just across the border actually. In both countries we have a lot of Italian and Spanish immigrants and their descendants. So the food is very similar. But the chivito is ours. It’s completely Uruguayan – unique to us. And in Uruguay, you find it everywhere. You will find chivito in fine dining restaurants and at stands on the streets. People make them at home too. They’re everywhere.
Uruguay is a little different from most countries in South America, because almost all of the people are descendants of European immigrants, mostly Spanish and Italians, but also some Germans, some French, some British and Irish. When the Spanish conquistadors first came to the region in the 1500s, there was a very small indigenous population there. They fought very hard against the Spanish, but eventually most of them were killed.
In the 1600s, a Spanish conquistador brought cattle to Uruguay for the first time and realized it was a perfect place to raise beef. There is a lot of open grassland in the countryside. It’s very easy to raise beef there. So quickly, the production of beef became a very important part of Uruguayan culture and the economy.
In the 1800s, there was a lot of fighting between the Spanish and British and Portuguese for control of the region. Eventually Uruguay declared independence from them all, and then there was a long civil war between political groups who wanted control of the country.
After the war, there started to be a very big influx of Italian and Spanish immigrants coming to Uruguay, to escape wars in Europe and to start a better life. Because of all that, Uruguay has a very strong European influences. You see that in the food. We have a lot of pastas from the Italians, a lot of seafood and octopus from the Spanish and Portuguese. In Uruguay we eat Spanish tortilla – the omelette with potato and onion that is like the national dish of Spain. We also have South American dishes like empanadas. And beef is everywhere. In Uruguay you see cattle being raised on the grasslands everywhere in the country. So grass-fed beef is very important, and very popular there.
In the chivito, you can see a lot of those influences – the beef which is truly Uruguayan with the mozzarella from Italy, the olives from Spain, the black forest ham from Germany. It’s really the one dish most unique and typical to Uruguay.
I can tell you a little about the history of the sandwich if you would like.
There is actually a legend behind the chivito. The story says that in the 1950s, a woman who had travelled all the way from Chile, through Argentina, to Uruguay, arrived at a place called Punta del Este. Punta del Este is a resort town on the southeastern coast of Uruguay. It’s like the San Tropez of Uruguay – a very upscale place, very beautiful, on the beach.
So this woman arrived in Punta del Este after a long journey, and she went to a restaurant on the beach called El Mejillón, which means ‘The Mussel.’ It was a nice place, run by a well-known chef. She was very hungry and it was very late, and she asked if she could have some chivito. Chivito is the grilled meat of a baby goat. It’s very common in Chile and Argentina, where she had come from. She loved chivito, and that’s what she wanted to eat more than anything else at the end of her long trip.
It was a complicated night at the restaurant. They had no power because of a blackout. They also had no chivito – in Uruguay, we eat beef. We hardly ever eat goat in Uruguay even though it is very common in the neighboring countries. But the woman was very tired and hungry, and the chef said, “There is a blackout and it is very late, so I can’t really cook much for you, but I will make you something.”
He went into the kitchen and he looked around at what he had. He put together a sandwich with a thin cut of steak and some ham, lettuce, tomato, olives and some butter, some mayonnaise. He brought it out to her. She wanted chivito but she loved the sandwich that he made for her, even though there was no goat meat on it. So that’s the reason they call the sandwich the chivito.
The woman liked it so much that the chef decided to keep it on the menu. From there it became very popular. The chef started serving many, many chivitos – hundreds each day. Everyone was talking about the chivito. It was a sensation. From there, it became very popular and spread all across Uruguay. Today, you find chivito everywhere in the country.
On a chivito, almost always you’re going to have a thin slice of grilled steak with onions, mozzarella, olives, tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise. Very often you will find it with ham, bacon, and fried egg too. As it became more and more popular, people started to experiment with some different ingredients. Just a few things here and there, to be creative. But it’s not the kind of thing where you go and put whatever you find in your refrigerator in a chivito. Some people make it with bacon, others without. Some with red pepper, some without.
So there is some improvisation with the exact ingredients, but it’s not a random thing. That collection of specific ingredients – the filet mignon, onions, mozzarella, olives, tomato and lettuce – is what makes a chivito a chivito. There are a lot of different things in the sandwich – a lot of flavors. Those ingredients all work together in a specific way that makes the chivito something really delicious.
Can you tell us a little about how you make it?
The key to the chivito is that the steak you use has to be filet mignon. It has to be. A thin slice of filet mignon is at the heart of every good chivito. Filet mignon is very expensive to use, but the tenderness of the cut is very important. There are a lot of things on the chivito, so it’s important that you have a very tender slice of steak so that every bite can be nice and clean. If you don’t have a very, very tender cut of steak, the whole thing will fall apart.
So to start we take the onions and we sauté them on the grill a little bit until they start to caramelize. Then we take them off and we cut a thin slice of the grass-fed filet mignon and pound it a little bit to make it even more tender. Then it goes on the grill, just for a minute on each side. When it’s almost done, we put the ham and the mozzarella on top, to melt. Then we put the bacon, then the onions on top of that, and the roasted red bell peppers and the olives, and then the lettuce and tomato, and a lightly fried organic egg. To finish it, we toast the bread on the grill a little, with some butter. When the bread is ready, we add some mayonnaise and put the sandwich together.
It’s not exactly a light sandwich, but it’s really good. You have the very tender filet mignon, the sweet and salty mozzarella, the smoky, crisp bacon, the rich flavor and light smoke of the ham, the kind of warm sweetness of the caramelized onion and the roasted red pepper, the bright, briny flavor of the olive, the nice tomato and the cool crunch of the lettuce. When you bite into it, the creamy yolk of the egg runs down into all of the other things. All together, the flavors all work very well together.
It’s a big sandwich. It’s something that’s messy to eat. It’s supposed to be that way. There’s no getting around that. But you are supposed to pick it up and eat it with your hands. That’s the way it is meant to be eaten. When we see people trying to eat it with a fork and knife we approach them in a good way and we recommend to them to eat it with their hands because that’s the way you are supposed to eat it. That’s how it’s done in Uruguay.
So Ramiro, how did you end up here, doing this?
I grew up in Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay. It’s a big port city, on the Atlantic coast. I lived there until I was twenty two. I was studying economics at the university and I realized it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. I had some friends who were living here in New York, so I decided to come here for six months to try it out, and I ended up staying. It’s been six years now.
I ended up going to college here, and got a degree in hospitality and management at CUNY in downtown Brooklyn. At the same time I was working in restaurants. When I first came here my father suggested to me that I should look for work in restaurants to make some money while I was in school. So that’s what I did. I ended up working at an Italian restaurant in the East Village with my friend Diego. We were both waiters and managers, and we learned a lot there.
What we realized was that there is not a lot of Uruguayan food in New York. We wanted to eat Uruguayan food, but you could only find it in Queens. We missed the food from home, and we thought people here who had never had it would like it a lot too. So we decided to open Tabaré. We lived here in Williamsburg, and eventually we found this space.
We started out with no money. We built the entire place ourselves. All the wood you see in here was free wood that we found on Craigslist. We did the tables ourselves, the bar, the floor. The kitchen is very small. Normally, a Uruguayan restaurant would have a big grill where you could cook all the meats and blood sausage and chorizo and everything like that. There’s no room for a big grill here, but we learned how to make it work. Now we have been open for two years. We have a lot of people from the neighborhood who come in, and a lot of Uruguayans from all over the city. I never really imagined that some day I would be living in New York City with my own Uruguayan restaurant, but you know, it’s been really great.
Tabaré is located at 221 South 1st Street, between Driggs and Roebling, in Williamsburg.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.