“No Reservations” season 4, episode 14: Uruguay

Location: it’s a Bourdain family vacation to Uruguay, the hidden secret of South America. Quietly tucked between beach-strewn Brazil and boisterous Argentina, Uruguay is the unsung hero of grilled meats, beautiful scenery and a quintessential “laid-back” lifestyle.

Episode Rating: Four bloody meat cleavers out of five. The cleavers are extra bloody this week from the insane amount of meat Tony eats during his Uruguayan odyssey. It’s worth noting that the high ratings so far this season are not inflated – every single new episode this summer has made for highly-watchable television.

Summary: Little did we know, but the Bourdain family has a colorful family history, starting with Tony’s grandfather who headed across the Atlantic in 1918 to settle for a few years in Uruguay. It is this mysterious voyage across the ocean which frames Tony’s trip. Who were his ancestors? What was life like in early 20th Century Uruguay? To help in his quest, Bourdain invites along his brother Chris, and the siblings set off to try and find some answers (and possibly eat some animal flesh during their downtime).
There’s no better place to begin a trip to Uruguay then by visiting the country’s capital, Montevideo. It’s a majestic old gem of a city, full of crumbling old buildings and picturesque streets. And perhaps no landmark is more emblematic of Uruguay than the Mercado del Puerto, arguably the “beating heart” of the country. The market is filled with vendors selling a virtual cornucopia of meat of every shape and size, slow-cooked a la parrilla (on the grill) over the burning coals of a huge wood-fed fire.

It’s here that Tony lays out his “meat manifesto” for his brother while the two gorge themselves on steak, sausages and loins served with a side of the ubiquitous chimichurri sauce. The consumption of potatoes, vegetables or bread of any kind while eating meat is forbidden! It only serves to fill you up so you can eat less meat. Mercado del Puerto truly seems tailor-made for Mr. Bourdain.

But this is Uruguay after all – there’s much more grilled flesh to be eaten, so Bourdain and his brother travel to “Gaucho country” near the village of La Galleja to visit a Uruguayan estancia. While there, Tony is hosted by a family originally from Canada that has made the Uruguayan countryside their home. The family cooks a huge feast in honor of Chris and Tony’s visit, including a whole piglet a la parrilla, an Estofado (a South American stew) made with sweet potatoes and Nandu and the centerpiece: an armadillo. Tony’s reaction: it tastes like chicken. Really Tony? Is this not the cardinal sin of food television?

Next up is the sleepy village of Garzon, population 200, where Tony pays a visit to renowned chef Francis Mallmann. Mallman has retreated from the glitzy dining scene of nearby Punta del Este to focus his energies on simple, traditional Uruguayan cooking. To demonstrate his new focus, he prepares Tony a meal using the traditional styles of asado – meat cooked between two iron grills, meat cooked in salt crust, vegetables cooked in hot ash and a pascualina spinach-egg pie on the side. As they eat this simple, delicious meal, Francis and Anthony discuss virtues of patience and the ultimate simplicity and primal nature of barbecue. The normally vitriolic Bourdain is downright mellow and rightfully so – an enormous simple meal of grilled meats seems to be perfectly suited to Bourdain’s temperment.

Seemingly satisfied with his time in the interior, Bourdain heads for the coast where he relaxes in Punta del Este, Uruguay’s infamous summer beach retreat for the rich and famous. After sunning himself on a beautiful stretch of sand, Tony and Chris have dinner seaside at La Huella, where they dine on fire-roasted prawns and sauteed octopus. Not surprisingly the Uruguayan seafood is just as good as the barbecue.

The two brothers then head up the coast to the hippie enclave of Cabo Polonio. They drink at a small bar with a local named Raoul, downing shots of the local moonshine made from grapes while the bar’s pet penguin, Pancho, scurries about beneath their feet. How did the penguin get there? He just sort of got lost one day and decided to stay. About the same way most wanderers find themselves in Cabo Polonio.

Upon their return to Montevideo, Tony and brother Chris conclude their visit at a raucous street fair featuring chorizo sandwiches, some drum based candombe music and siete y tres cocktails made from a mixture of red wine and coke. Though Bourdain and his crew clearly planned the event for television, the scene quickly becomes a full-fledged party as the friendly locals notice the commotion and begin to gather. It’s fairly typical of Uruguay – it just sort of sneaks up on you with its beauty, its surprising and fantastic food and the unassuming friendliness of the locals. But don’t expect Uruguay to stay under the radar much longer – a place this good can only stay a secret for so long.