Just when it seemed like nearly every cuisine on the planet is represented in L.A., up pops a restaurant like Uruguay Café. Montevideo native Javier Rodriguez opened his café five months ago in South El Monte, on a stretch of Garvey Avenue that’s better known for pho than the traditional dishes of El Río de la Plata, “the land of the tango.”
Rodriguez said Uruguayan restaurants exist in New York, New Jersey and Miami, but Uruguay Café is the only Uruguayan restaurant in L.A. Uruguayan food will be recognizable to people who love dishes from neighboring Argentina, but as we learned, there are some differences.
Rodriguez proudly decorated his restaurant with Uruguay’s flag, a trio of drums for Monday “Clases de Tambor” and a wall of dry goods from his motherland. He even had a satellite news feed from Uruguay on the flat screen TV.
I invited Bill Esparza (Street Gourmet LA) to join me on the fruitful scout, and we ordered every single Uruguayan dish on the menu, starting with a slab of Pascualina ($4.99), a tart loaded with minced spinach, bell pepper, onion and entire hard-boiled eggs. Pascualina proved to be almost all about the savory filling, since the puff pastry crust was so thin.
We also scored a slab of Torta de Atun ($4.99) another puff pastry tart with a simple filling of shredded tuna (no doubt canned) that was folded (and enlivened) with peppers, olives and onions. This was the least interesting dish, but it was by no means fishy-funky.
Chivito al pan ($8.99) is the national sandwich of Uruguay. If you speak Spanish, the idea that a beef sandwich would be named for a chivo (goat) might be confusing. Apparently the sandwich originated in a Uruguay bar, when a foreigner asked for goat, and since the proprietor didn’t have any on hand, slyly substituted beef. Rodriguez serves his chivito al pan on on telera bread, though it normally appears in Uruguay on an oversized hamburger bun called a tortuga. The soft bun cradles grilled thin-cut Angus steak, ham, melted cheese, fried egg, grilled bell pepper, bacon, lettuce, tomato and mayo. This isn’t an oversized monstrosity. Instead, Uruguay’s Cafe sandwich centered on judicious balance, and achieved it.
We finished with a massive slab of Postre Chaja ($4.99), a clever Uruguayan cake featuring masa layered with dulce de leche, peaches, cream, more masa, more cream and crispy shards of meringue. The cake must have weighed a pound, but Rodriguez showed restraint with the dulce de leche, so it wasn’t overly rich.
Rodriguez has a small section of Mexican dishes, including tacos, burritos, quesadillas and plates of carne asada, but don’t hold that against him. The neighborhood is heavily Mexican, he has to sell food, and not every Angeleno is comfortable with ordering Uruguayan food…yet.
We each drank a cup of herbal green mate ($1.99), which seemed to calm my stomach after all the intake. Uruguay Cafe sells three brands of mate – Cruz de Malta, Taragui and Canarias – plus dulce de leche cookies, jars of dulce de leche – Conaprote and Dulce de Leche del Campo – and cans of Aguadito green rice soup.
Even though we tried every Uruguayan dish on the menu, we still found two additional reasons to return; Saturday evenings feature live Uruguayan music and an asado out front.