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Day 61 – Not Being Anthony Bourdain at Estancia del Puerto

December 10, 2010

Location: Montevideo and Punte del Este, Uruguay

Date: Friday, December 10, 2010

I’m chasing Anthony Bourdain. The man has one of my dream jobs–the others of course being Richard Branson’s sole heir and Angelina Jolie’s kiss coach (I hear Mrs. Brad Pitt could use some help).

Bourdain travels the world, eating and drinking too much (sounds like someone I know, except he gets paid). When he gets bored, he writes a book. He’s an asshole who’s somehow convinced the world he’s a jackass (a jackass being like an asshole, but funnier). His antics are excused because “that’s just Tony.” The only thing that would make his job better is if I were doing it.

It should be no surprise then that I’ve come to Estancia del Puerto in Montevideo’s historic Mercado del Puerto (Port Market) to eat mounds of meat, just like Bourdain did in the Uruguay episode of his show No Reservations. I am here as an aspiring padawan to consume the same fare as one of the Jedi masters. Perhaps if I provide myself the same inputs, I might be able to achieve the same output—namely, living the life of a writer who writes only when he wants.

Bourdain came here with his TV crew to explore the finer points of the parilla, a grilling technique perfected by the Uruguayans. How perfected? You know how Argentines are famous for their asados? Well, Argentines come to Uruguay to eat parilla, like guilty Ferrari designers who secretly drive Lamborghinis on the weekends. Bottom line: the Uruguayans know their way around fire and meat.

Now that I’m here, it’s easy to see why Bourdain chose Estancia del Puerto from amongst all the meateries crammed into the old market building. Here, like in all parillas, wood logs are thrown into a reverse chimney contraption at the back of the grill. The wood burns down and the coals are raked from back to front. The smoldering embers sear racks of meat and are, in turn, fed by the fat dripping off lamb, loin, blood sausage, chorizo, and every cow entrail imaginable.

What makes Estancia del Puerto stand out from its competition is the magnitude of fire and meat. Sitting at the counter is like standing in front of a blacksmith’s shop. It’s a more jaw-dropping display of hot, burning flesh than if a flaming Thunder from Down Under bus crashed into an conflagrating Spearmint Rhino.

My traveling companion Marie and I shunned the tables and sat at the counter in front of the flaming barbequeno sense in missing out on the show. We ordered the parilla para dos, a bucket of meat for two, complete with a hidden stash of coals to keep it warm. It was our best decision of the day, perhaps only matched by our choice to swap out the chicken (boring pollo) for the lamb (tastier codero, and a cuter animal to boot). The lamb turned out to be the best of the meat mountain, which is saying something, considering Uruguay is known for its beef. (Reportedly, cows outnumber humans in Uruguay 3 to 1.) But make no mistake, the cow was great, too. Every last bit it. Even the sweet breads.

The surprise of the meat pail, though, was the blood sausage (morcilla). Unlike all my previous experiences, this one was juicy, soft, and utterly delicious; a little sweet, a lot of savory, and with the consistency of a light, moist brownie. It had just a hint of iron, enough to make it interesting, but not so much that you felt you were sucking on a nail file. I am officially a fan. Blood sausage me up.

Unlike Argentina, Uruguayan cuisine has a bit of spice to it. For example, today we dolloped two kinds of sauce: a chimichuri (parsley, olive oil, garlic, and spices) and a red sauce (made of peppers, garlic, oil, and stuff of unknown origin).

The fires of Hades raged in front of us, putting us on the verge of skin cancer. Ingesting our body weight in animal carcass gave us the meat heat. We sweated like we were sitting in a carne sauna. Here, in Mercado del Puerto, the world is flipped–turns out heaven is filled with hellfire and reeks of burning flesh.

I was so enthusiastic about the experience that the grill master (the same one who appeared on No Reservations) let Marie and me behind the counter for a picture. Happiness is.

So am I any closer to living like Tony himself? Did eating at the same altar of meat bestow me with the powers of Bourdain? Am I now a bestselling author read by millions?

Early consensus: “No.”

In fact, I’m no closer today than I was the day before.

The reason is simple: Bourdain got lucky. After one failed marriage, a rocky cooking career, at least two suicidal periods (one after he published his bestseller, Kitchen Confidential), and a mountain of drugs, he’s still somehow getting paid to do what he loves—eat, travel, and write. I’m sure he’d admit that he’s a not-so-good man who’s gotten more out of life than he deserved.

And here’s the rub:  I want the same thing. It’s the American dream, really. Not that Protestant work ethic, labor-hard-and-make-something-of-yourself bullshit. I’m talking the real American dream: to win the life lottery; to have success, happiness, and fulfillment in spite of yourself; to get paid to do what you’d probably do for free.

But I’m no fool.  I have a more than one dream job.  If this whole writing thing doesn’t pan out I’ll start by looking for Mrs. Brad Pitt’s address. I’ve got a kiss résumé I hope she wants to see.

GALLERY: Click here to see bonus pictures of Mervyn’s day in Montevideo including the one with him and Marie behind the counter holding giant meats on sticks and a picture of a real, live cuy.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Doris permalink
    January 6, 2011 8:33 am

    Hurray! I’ve watched the episode, how fun to see it from your perspective!
    I have to say that seeing you behind the counter makes me feel very proud of you.

  2. Mariana permalink
    August 6, 2012 2:19 pm

    Hi Mervyn, Nice post. As a wedding gift for friends who are going to spend a couple days in Montevideo during their honeymoon, I would like to give them $$ to stand-in as a gift certificate for a parrillada for two at Estancia del Puerto. Would you mind telling me how much you spent there? It would help me to figure-out how much to give. Thank you!

  3. August 7, 2012 9:17 am

    Hi Mariana,

    The barbecue bucket for two cost about $35 USD. Add on the cost of drinks and I’d guess you’re looking at $45 USD or so. The bucket is the way to go. You can choose your own meat. The various cuts of beef are no brainers, but I’d also suggest the lamb (cordero) and at least one blood sausage (morcilla). Skip the chicken. 🙂

    Wow, just talking about this has made me hungry. I’m so missing Uruguay right now.

  4. Ryan permalink
    January 3, 2013 1:56 am

    It was a pleasant surprise to see your post on that area. It happened to be my favorite out of all of the Bourdain episodes. I never new how beautiful Uruguay was. The scene at the end of the episode, ocean waves crashing against the cobblestone pier, was breathtaking. I’ve wondered how western friendly the vibe of the city might be. I plan on taking the trip myself in the near future. Thanks for the post!

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