Let’s face it: Chile isn’t particularly famous for its food. Sure, empanadas go a long way and pisco sours are a sure-fire ticket to a pleasantly blurred, shenanigan-filled night of carousing; but you don’t see many celebrities flocking to the latest swanky Chilean restaurants in New York.
Photo by Laura Adviento
But, instead, what was the main course for the majority of meals during my first six months in Santiago? What do I eat on nearly every drunken walk home? What saves me from starvation on Sunday evenings when everything is closed?
What's that one Chilean food my taste buds can never forget?
The completo: a hot dog with tomato, salsa and mayonnaise.
Literally the “complete,” the completo may well be the second-most consumed substance (right below oxygen) on Chilean soil. And although the completo-eating experience is arguably as Chilean as hiking Torres del Paine or getting tear-gassed, many foreigners resist it at first sight. It may not be the healthiest entree on the menu, but how can something wrong feel so right?
You can always tell how long people have been in Chile by how they eat a completo. With so many condiments crammed into one bun, the food by nature can intimidate any newbie. The best way to start is to observe real Chileans perform the ritual.
Their technique is so smooth they could eat a completo in the middle of a job interview or on a first date. They usually only need one hand, easily carry a conversation while chewing and leave a spotless, spill-free table when finished. Chileans have been known to enjoy completos while riding bikes, talking on the phone, juggling bowling pins and solving Rubik’s Cubes. (OK, maybe not those last two, but you get the idea.)
Another common deterrence from foreigner completo consumption is the ability to recognize the difference between the completo and its not-so-distant, more expensive cousin: the italiano, a completo with guacamole spread on the bun. The red tomatoes, green palta (avocado) and white mayo resemble the Italian flag--hence, italiano.
Many servers (whether in restaurants, fast-food joints or street-side carts) will try to upsell the italiano for a couple hundred pesos more, assuming you don’t know the difference.
The first time I ordered a completo, the hurried, short and sweaty server replied with a brisk “ya,” then asked in a somewhat affirmative tone, “italiano?” I went along and replied, “Sí, claro,” as I was new in town, generally went with the flow in those situations and assumed he was confirming the way I wanted my hot dog cooked.
My buddy sauntered over a few minutes later, set an italiano on the table and, to my dismay, handed me a bill for CP$300 more than what I'd expected. I’ll never forget the smirk on his face. Granted, while the italiano was tasty and 300 pesos isn’t the end of the world, the dude got me. Even the best tasting hot dog can’t wash away that taste.
But don’t be discouraged. Stay vigilant, embrace the phenomenon and try the completo. They sell for about CP$400 to $800 (US$.65 to $1.30) with italianos a couple hundred pesos more. Many establishments boast completo-beer combos and, if you’re lucky, two-for-one deals that might just make your day.
Your instincts may say, "no way," but your taste buds will say, “apúrate!" (Hurry up!)
Completo Hot Spots:
Bellavista street vendors
Pio Nono (at Bellavista)
Pollísimo Fuente de Soda / Restaurant
Alameda 44 (at Vicuna Mackenna)
Donde el Guatón
Bustamante 650 (at Caupolican)
Huerfanos 950, Plaza de Armas
Various locations in Santiago
Huerfanos 944, Plaza de Armas
Various locations in Santiago