Patacon Pisao recently opened on Essex Street peddling the patacon, a Venezuelan sandwich. Formed using two stiff rounds of fried plantain in lieu of bread, it arrives layered with fixin’s like roast pork, fried cheese, shredded beef, and ketchup. When Charrua debuted a few months later just down the block, it also focused on a sandwich — the Uruguayan chivito — and a sandwich battle soon commenced. Mounted on a shiny brioche bun, the chivito bulges with ham, egg, steak, bacon, olives, mozzarella, pickled peppers, lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions, and mayo, every bit as lush as a New Orleans muffaletta. This version, one of five at Charrua, is called la canadiense ($16 dinner, $13 lunch), which means "the Canadian." Maybe the idea is that only a lumberjack could finish it. The chivito comes with a giant heap of fries so good you may demolish them before you pick up the sandwich.
The chivito bulges with ham, egg, steak, bacon, olives, mozzarella, pickled peppers, lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions, and mayo.
While Patacon Pisao feels like a fast food spot, Charrua is a full-blown bistro with big picture windows facing the Essex Market; banquettes on two sides are scattered with colorful throw pillows, and the walls are decorated with antique potato mashers and photographs of Old Montevideo — a city that’s like a smaller and wealthier version of Buenos Aires. Apart from the chivito and a chickpea flatbread called faina, there’s not much difference between Uruguayan and Argentinean food.
Though the Uruguayan national menu is rather limited, mainly confined to steaks, pizzas, pastas, and empanadas as a result of the Spanish and Italian heritage of its citizens, this limitation perfectly suits the purposes of a Lower East Side bistro. Most of the fare will seem instantly familiar, and there appear to be no frivolous inventions among the selections. Be prepared to sit down and have a delicious and relatively inexpensive winter meal, with no challenging organ meats, squishy sea urchins, or spicy sauces.
The empandas are among the best in town
Fried to perfection, served in pairs, and poked with a toothpick that hoists green cocktail olives like a battle flag, the empanadas ($8) at Charrua are among the best in town. Your choices run to tuna, ground beef and egg, and best of all, corn kernels shot with pimento, making the filling sweet and salty and tasting like a summer day. As with nearly everything else on the menu, the empanadas come with a salad dressed a little too heavily with vinaigrette. Ask for no dressing, and use instead some of the excellent olive oil that comes with the table bread, rife with such tart, house-pickled vegetables as mushrooms, carrots, and onions that delicately flavor the oil.
The croquettes — either mushroom or ham and cheese, accompanied by a Russian-dressing dip — are good, though not of the empanada’s caliber. The appetizer portion of the menu also offers a three-cheese fondue, meatballs in tomato sauce, and a daily soup, but go instead for chipirones a la plancha ($12), small squid in a dark and salty braise. Also worthwhile is the split and grilled chorizo, which might remind you of smoked Polish sausage. If it’s lunchtime, you can have the chorizo as a choripan — the national sandwich of Argentina furnished with fries and dressed with chimichurri. Never has one block of the city seen so many South American sandwiches.
Tagged with little bits of skin and the glinting like polished bronze, the same fries also accompany the churrasco ($23), a skirt steak long enough that it doesn’t quite fit on the dinner plate. The kitchen will grill it any way you want, but the meat is good enough you might want it rare. It arrives sliced with the usual salad of baby lettuces. On the same sort of platter but at a considerably cheaper price, the milanesa ($16) is also terrific, a lightly breaded beef or chicken schnitzel of considerable size. Striving to fulfill its pro-forma bistro duties, Charrua dabbles in big salads. The one featuring beets and blue cheese you’ve seen dozens of times before; suffice to say the most interesting thing on the plate are the swatches of poached and lightly pickled white onion.
A couple of pastas are also available. Best is the superlative spaghetti a la Caruso ($14), a dish invented in the 1950s in a Montevideo restaurant to commemorate visits to the city by tenor Enrico Caruso 40 years earlier. Don’t ask why it took them so long. The al dente strands are tossed with mushrooms and ham, mellowed by cream, and sharpened with onions, and the pasta manages to seem more South American than Italian. The ample raviolis ($17) come with a choice of fillings (spinach or cheese) and sauces (tomato or pesto), but somehow the plate doesn’t quite amount to a full dinner. But an order of empanadas followed by those same raviolis might just do the trick.
Cost: A chivito-and-fries lunch with a beverage and tax, but not tip, will run around $20; dinner including an app plus pasta or meat course with a beverage and tax will be $30 to $35.
What to drink: The restaurant is B.Y.O.B., and beer or wine is the beverage of choice. Note: the restaurant will decant either into a white ceramic pitcher. It’s not a bad idea with the wine, but will de-foam the beer. So bring wine.
Bonus tip: Charrua is a good choice for an economical bistro meal, and you can dine well ordering only an entrée with no apps. Unfortunately, this will get you out of there in under 45 minutes, and the place is, as I implied, exceedingly comfortable on a winter evening.