After 12 years abroad, Uruguayan reports on Montevideo food scene

The food scene in New York City had turned Javier's head. Would Montevideo mean having to trade great food for the luxury of time and money to enjoy it?
By Javier Frank
Last updated on February 9, 2021

The sight of the crisp, piping-hot dough mixed with the smell of the warming shaved zucchini and parmiggiano on top made me stop mid-sentence and sigh out loud: “I’m going to miss this back in Uruguay”. It was mid 2010, I was in Munich, Germany, sitting in the poorly-lit basement of the pizza place work colleagues and I frequented for lunch every week. Just a few blocks from the office, in the middle of a block on Amalienstraße. I had the usual: pizza Bianca and sparkling water, followed by an espresso. The venue was simple, the likes of which you find all over in the “northernmost Italian city” as Müncheners like to boast. My colleagues, far from being surprised by my premature homesickness added: “Yep, and you will miss the espresso too.”

I grew up in Uruguay and having travelled little during my twenties, a move to Munich meant being exposed to new food for the first time in my life. And it was glorious.

The Montevideo food scene in the 80s, 90s and early ‘aughts was very, very uniform. Yes, the meat was great and the dulce de leche—the best delicacy in the world that no foreigner seemed to really appreciate. Our provinciality had galvanized Uruguayan tastebuds around a few staples sourced from twentieth century immigration—and that was it.

It wasn’t that the food was bad, it was just monotonous

So, even if you had the rare chance to venture to nearby Argentina, where the situation was not much better (with the exception of their wondrous empanadas), a typical middle class guy like myself could grow up without being exposed to spicy food of any kind, aromatic coffee, pizza thinner than a deck of cards, drinkable white wine or beef cooked below medium-well. It’s not that the food was bad. It was just monotonous.

I didn’t stay put in Uruguay after my “return home” in 2010—to no-one’s astonishment except my own. Just a year later I was living in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan. In comparison to Munich, the food and drink experience of living in New York was commensurate with the differences in the cities’ sizes. My foodie learning journey continued and I experienced Jewish, Caribbean, Chinese, Vietnamese, French, Ukranian and yes, US cuisine, to name a few, for the first time. I want to be honest here: I am not claiming to be an expert or even like all these flavors and textures but I was blown away by the diversity in contrast to the food of my upbringing in Uruguay.

Back to Uruguay

Last Thursday, after dropping off my kids for a sleep over at my parents in Pocitos, my wife and I ordered in and prepared to catch a movie on Netflix. Having moved from Manhattan back to Montevideo last year with our three and five year-olds, it’s a treat afforded to us thanks to being close to family again and having disposable income. But… did we have to trade-off great food for the luxury of actually being able to enjoy it?

Absolutely not. The food and drinks scene in Montevideo is world class nowadays, and expanding very rapidly. [Editor’s note: Check out National Geographic’s Culinary Guide to Montevideo and download our free guide to the best of Uruguay]

Artisanal gin tasting © Javier Frank

Artisanal gin, craft beer and coffee

That night I poured myself a tasting flight of artisanal gins to get the night started. Four brands have sprung up in the last couple months, all sporting local botanicals. After that we ate pizza from Rigor, where you can also order the house Albariño by the half- or one litre bottle and icecream from Grøt, where flavors change daily because they use only seasonal produce. The pizza from Rigor is on par with the best Neapolitan you can order in Manhattan (sorry, still not as good at Rosso Pizza in Munich but I’m sure that’s nostalgia talking).

As for coffee you can buy freshly roasted specialty coffee grown as far as Ethiopia, Colombia or Rwanda from any of over a dozen knowledgeable roasters in Montevideo alone. Or you can actually drink it in many different methods at the fabulous third-wave cafés in town. Not only do I get to indulge my espresso habit here in Montevideo–I can expand my coffee palate by heading around the corner.

The craft beer movement is strong here, too. In that sense Munich was as bland as Montevideo was in the 90s beer-wise. New York introduced me to the ales and other flavors Bavarian famous purity law forbade and you can find everywhere nowadays in Uruguay. If you want to pair the wine with Argentine-style empanadas you are in luck, too.

Martin Rosberg cheeses © Photo: Tali Kimelman

Wagyu, dumplings and cheese

Wine and meat have also changed incredibly in quality and diversity. You can find excellent cuts, formerly unavailable to locals as Uruguay exported all their best cuts, at places like Del Campo, who also offers pork from their own free-range farm or duck magret, or foie gras from the south of France. Heck you can even get local Waygu and dry-aged bone-in steaks from them, a ludicrous proposition even five years ago. Same applies to olive oil: imported garbage five years ago versus dozens of local organic brands in 2021. It’s nuts!

There are still glaring gaps in the scene. For instance, decent chinese food is nowhere to be found yet. But I get to order dumplings from a lovely Chinese lady I met on instagram to the delight of my five year old who became addicted to them in NYC.

I am very hopeful, however. A year ago you couldn’t buy spicy sauces anywhere and now you have both Sanjacha and Fin del mundo an Instagram DM away. A year ago I struggled to find above-average cheeses in Montevideo and now you can buy a deliciously aged Jersey from LaVigna at Del Campo or mouth-watering Camemberts from Martin Rosberg at De Guarda. That is to say, things are getting interesting so fast I’m now confident there is no turning back. Uruguayans have discovered food in time for me to feel at home back home again.

Spicy sauces © Fin del Mundo

Javier Frank is a digital technology business advisor born and now once again based in Montevideo after becoming addicted to Butterbrezel in Munich for 4 years and then to poppy-seed bagels during his 8 years in New York City.  Follow him on Twitter @javfrankg and Instagram @xavfvax.

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2 Responses

  1. You wrote exactly what I experienced living in the USA for the past 40+ years. I learned to eat broccoli and asparagus in the US. The cooking revolution took place in the USA too. You can now buy Haagen Dazs dulce de leche ice cream in a supermarket something that didn’t exist years ago. You can also find frozen empanadas and yerba mate drinks and teas. The word chorizo is everywhere. I like what you wrote. The food in Uruguay was and continuous to be monotonous. I always tell my Mom that everything has ham, all the pastries have dulce de leche, what else is there? Foreigners and tourists look for the places you mention. People in Uruguay are discovering these novelties. My 88 year old Mom watches the cooking shows now. When visiting the States she usually told me not to take her to weird places. Now she craves my friend’s Indian cooking, barbecued ribs, Chinese food, moussaka, and mojitos. Mom and her friend go out to the new coffee places in search for the best coffee in Montevideo. Years ago, while in Montevideo, my nephews refused to eat a pasta salad with honey mustard sauce i prepared. I tried to cook a chicken and mushroom recipe for my father and could not find fresh mushrooms anywhere. I am happy to see all the wineries, coffee places and new restaurants, but only an elite will find them or pay the prices. The world is accessible now, people travel, experience new cuisines and bring back their memories back to Uruguay. I am lucky to have lived in NYC and go to places like a Chinese Kosher restaurant or experience Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. I’m now living in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, North Miami. I’m surrounded by Argentinian restaurants with milanesas and overcooked asado. Lucky once again to try new cuban and Peruvian flavors. Thank you Guru’Guay for letting the world know about Uruguay. I always said Uruguay needed a good public relations person. You are doing a great job. I still love having a cortado anywhere in Pocitos and smell the fresh bread at las panaderías when I visit.

    1. Hi Gia, your message is fantastic. So much for taking time to write such a detailed reply. I totally hear you. Fortunately now fresh mushrooms are in most supermarkets, though still much more expensive than in the UK where I came from (over 20 years ago). I don’t agree about the new gourmet food places being only for elites. I find that young people, particularly in the capital, will spend their earnings on a Uruguayan craft beer now over an industrially produced one. Also, as I mention in this article, there is generally very little price difference between eating in a fine restaurant in Montevideo compared with a budget one. Totally in agreement about what you had to say about how the cookery programmes are making Uruguayans much more adventurous than they were less than a decade ago. Stay in touch! — Karen

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