Upon entering Santiago's Central Market, you might easily get annoyed and overwhelmed by the hordes of vendors and restaurant hosts aggressively competing for your business. But once you learn to ignore them and know where to eat and shop, El Mercado Central truly is an urban maritime dream.
Photo by Ana Topoleanu
Open 365 days a year, this seafood market delivers the utmost quality and diversity that 6,435 kilometers of Chilean coastline has to offer. Whether you're famished from a day trek in the nearby Andes, hungry for a seafood lunch, or in need of the Chilean hangover cure (the famous caldillo de mariscos, a rich tomato based shellfish soup, is said to do the trick), El Mercado Central will satisfy your needs.
The restaurants open their doors at 6 a.m. specifically to cater to the late night party goers pouring out of nearby discos. The second rush of business hits in the late afternoon, when a more family-oriented crowd takes over, until the market closes at 5 p.m.
Inaugurated in 1872 by Benjamin Vicuña Mackenna, a famous Chilean politician and historian, the market has become a cultural institution over the last century. Its intricate roof of fused iron flowers, vines and trellises, attracts architecture buffs and tourists alike. Its restaurants have been the Sunday lunch family dining spots for generations, and its vendors have provided locals all the fixings for their curantos (belowground seafood bake) and mariscals (seafood soups).
In cuisine, consistency really is a recipe for longevity, and Señora Carmen Vasquez’s 40 years of expertise in making empanadas have me returning to her kitchen at Donde Augusto. On the west end of the market, her empanada workshop is a short bar with six barstools that look directly into her kitchen. Pull up a stool and let the delightful Señora Carmen entice you with her stories while she prepares her empanadas.
The dough and fillings are from family recipes passed down for generations. Empanada choices are shrimp and cheese (CP$1,080, or US$1.70), shellfish (CP$880), scallop and cheese (CP$1,280), and simply cheese (CP$680). The exotic shellfish empanada, filled with crab, scallops, shrimp, onion, paprika, cilantro and white pepper, is perfectly spiced and delicate in texture.
Besides her empanadas, says Señora Carmen, the house specialty is pescado frito (CP$2,980), a local flakey white fish battered and deep fried. It is accompanied by a choice of rice, french fries, mashed potatoes, Chilean salad (tomato and onion), salad or avocado.
For daring palates, the menu also offers the more bizarre tastings of the Chilean pacific such as steamed picoroco (barnacles), Ulte (thick, gelatinous-looking seaweed), erizos (sea urchins) or, my favorite, locos (abalones). Chupe de locos (CP $5,980), a rich, creamy and sizzling hot casserole filled with cheese, cream, breadcrumbs and delicate abalone, is served in a clay pot and arrives to your table bubbling.
Finally, the pride of the Chilean sea--and the way to break your pocketbook--is the steamed centolla (Antarctic king crab) for CP$40,000 to $100,000, depending on the size. Unlike the leg or two you get from ordering king crab in other parts of the world, Donde Agusto serves the entire monstrous creature along with drawn butter and mayonnaise for dipping.
El Delfin Dorado
El Mercado Central is not just for eating, of course. It’s also the place to buy the freshest seafood to prepare at home. I have found my buying refuge in the honesty of the four blonde Cordova sisters and their mother, who run the El Delfin Dorado fish stand in the north end of the market.
Ask for Alejandra, who will pick out the best of what she has or point you to a fresher fish supply. Always willing to give cooking instructions and recipe suggestions, she can also teach you how to tell how fresh the rarer sea creatures are.
Certainly, part of the dread of buying fresh fish and shellfish is having to clean them at home, but El Delfin Dorado will clean, fillet, cut steaks, shuck or open on the half shell any purchase, free of charge. Machas (razor clams) range from CP$1,500 to $2,000 per kilo, a whole salmon costs about CP$6,000, and shrimp usually goes for CP$3,000 per kilo. For those unable to make it to the market, El Delfin Dorado also offers a delivery service for a small fee.
Let your discriminating palate erupt in accolades with the many sweet and salty flavors of the Chilean sea, and set the perfect prelude to a late afternoon siesta at El Mercado Central.
El Mercado Central
San Pablo (between Puente and 21 de Mayo)
Open daily, 6 am to 5 pm
Metro: Cal y Canto
Mercado Central 66-166
Phone: 698 1366, 671 4588
El Delfin Dorado
Mercado Central 42
Phone: 696 2819, 699 1175