At the corner of Mosqueto and Monjitas, in barrio Santa Lucia, there is a small business with no name. Day or night, people can be seen hanging out in front of the boarded window on the Mosqueto side or sitting on one of the concrete sphere bollards on the Monjitas side.
They are either eating or about to eat pizza and empanadas.
Welcome to the small business with no name, a white façade, a sullen owner, and delicious empanadas.
Like most places, I found this one by chance. In 2014, our flight from Montevideo to Buenos arrived late at night. This was our first time back in Santiago since 2008 and we were staying in a whole different part of town we didn’t know much. I was hungry and I had very little hope of finding anything open since it was close to midnight—Santiago isn’t Buenos Aires where people routinely have dinner at 11 p.m. and go watch a movie at 1 a.m. Besides, I didn’t know what to look for. The only food I remembered eating in Santiago were fries in one of the pedestrian streets and a delicious sopa de pescado at the Mercado Central—no doubt I wouldn’t find either that late at night.
We checked in and I rushed to the supermarket downstairs. Phew, still open. I bought a few things for the guys and looked for something else for me. There were a few cafés open around La Merced but they were just selling drinks and huge slices of cake. Tempting, but I was really hungry and bingeing on cake felt wrong, so I asked around for sandwiches or other acceptable dinner options.
“Over there,” a helpful soul advised.
And this is how I stumbled upon the business with no name. I probably would have walked by without noticing it if it wasn’t for the fact that the lights were on and there were people eating empanadas in front of it.
This is when I stepped in and met the empanada guy.
I mean, I’m sure he has a name but clearly, he couldn’t be bothered giving his business one, so names are irrelevant here. To me, he is the empanada guy. A big sixtysomething man behind the till, curly hair and red face, eyes on the TV.
“Do you have… empanadas?”
He pointed to the menu on the counter. And by “the menu” I mean the single laminated sheet of paper by the till.
I studied it carefully.
“Dos empanadas, por favor. Una champiñones queso y una…”
“Dos mil seiscientos.”
Apparently, my choice of empanada filling was irrelevant. I looked at the menu. Right. They were all the same price.
I paid and turned to the left.
Another guy by the giant oven was checking if the pizza square another customer was waiting for was ready.
“Una champiñones queso y una… ¿que hay en la napolitana?”
“Jamón, tomate y queso,” he replied, looking at me as if I was from Mars (unlikely) or high (likely, given the neighbourhood).
Without a word, he put two empanadas in the oven. Clearly, this wasn’t the kind of place where you customized your food and talked about it on Instagram. Just as well. I was hungry.
As I was waiting, I looked at the display I had missed behind the counter. There was bread but I didn’t have any ham, butter or cheese.
“¿Que e esto?”
“Pan de huevo.”
“¿Es dulce o salado?”
Okay, maybe it was a stupid question but in many bakeries, I can’t tell what’s sweet or savoury. Cheese bread and coconut bread kind of look the same, for instance. Same goes with empanadas. I don’t have X-ray vision, I gotta ask what is inside.
“Es pan de huevo.”
Right. Some people like to introduce stupid foreigners to local foods, other don’t give a shit. We were clearly in the “don’t give a shit” category here.
“Uno por favor.”
I like bread, I like eggs. Maybe I was about to eat bread made with eggs or bread with boiled eggs inside, who cares.
I handed him a 500-peso coin. He stood up, put the bread in a paper bag and gave it to me.
And so I brought dinner back to the hotel.
It was delicious too, so I’ve been going back there ever since and I can tell you I’ve never seen the empanada smile or utter more than the price to pay. He is a character. His wife too—she’s as sullen as him. They take turn behind the till, which makes sense considering the place is open 24 hours on weekends and until 1 a.m. or 3 a.m. on weekdays.
I like characters like him.
And people of Santiago in general.