By Margaret Snook, May 5, 2009
Somehow—for reasons beyond my comprehension—the seaside town of Concón, in Central Chile, has managed to get away with declaring itself the “Gastronomic Capital of Chile.” Yes, there are plenty of restaurants, but the vast majority are the typical seaside eateries with white-shirted, bow-tied waiters pushing outdated wines and overcooked fish. There are few worth writing home (or anywhere else) about. And then there’s La Gatita.
My husband and I have been hearing about La Gatita, a favorite seafood restaurant in the Las Higuerillas section of Concón (near the yacht club) for years. We’ve even tried going a few times to find out what’s behind all the to-do. But it fills up fast, and in a country where Sunday dinner begins at 2:00—or even 3:00, the line forms outside La Gatita at 11:30, and it’s filled to its 18-table capacity within minutes after it opens its doors at noon.
We got there at 12:20 and were fourth on the waiting list. “Table for two? 20 or 30 minutes,” she said. Hah! An hour 20, in fact, but we were determined. Getting a table was our goal of the day. Sure, the place next door (Calipso) was completely empty and had a better view, but we were on a mission and installed ourselves in the parking lot with the others.
This is clearly a picada, a simple place, with too-close tables and plenty of hustle and bustle, but the wait staff is fast and generally efficient. Hot rolls and spicy pebre appeared on the table within minutes, and the generously large and strong pisco sours we ordered just moments later.
We opted for an order of machas (razor clams)—half a la parmesana, half con salsa verde. The salsa verde (green sauce) turned out to be more onion than parsley, and the parmesana was creamy style, served on the half shell and swimming in sauce. Yummy, although I prefer the standard drier, creamless style with lemon juice. The machas themselves were perfectly tender.
Like most regional restaurants and nearly every picada in the country, the wine list leaves something to be desired. We wanted a half bottle of Chardonnay, and although a Casillero del Diablo appears on the menu, the only half-bottle whites were a Santa Emiliana Sauvignon and a Carmen Rhin. We needed more body to go with the fried fish and ended up going classical with a Santa Rita 120 Cabernet (a light red holds up better to the fried batter than a light-bodied white).
The wine appeared before we had gotten half way through the pisco sour. She popped the cork on the Sauvignon Blanc before we had a chance to say “tinto.” “¡EEEEE!” She responded, in that wide-eyed, air-sucking way that so many Chilean women do… it quickly disappeared and the correct wine appeared in its place, along with a big, apologetic smile, earning her good service points despite the error.
Everything happens fast here. Our main course showed up before the first course was cleared, but the waitress seemed to have 6 arms and managed to lift one set of dishes and smoothly replace them with the next set all at once. Suddenly I was seated before an enormous and perfectly prepared congrio frito (batter-fried conger eel or kingclip), the kind I’d been yearning for for ages. It was big and golden with crispy coating, flaky flesh, and accompanied by several fresh-cut lemon halves. “The Mr.” wanted merluza, which was unavailable, so he opted for albacora, which is usually simply grilled with butter and capers or almonds, but he too hankered for fried batter. Not the best choice of the day; he’ll stick to tradition next time. The fries served along side would’ve benefited from a few more minutes in the fryer to crisp and golden up their limp-ish pallor.
In typical picada style, a singer strolls through about once per seating (they turn this place over about 5 times on busy Sundays). ¡Bésame! Bésame mucho… he sings with a smile bigger than his voice. Tips are expected as he strolls from table to table.
The portions are generous, and dessert, out of the question, although the meal did end on a sweet note. The bill: not cheap, but a quite reasonable $20.000 (about $35 US) including tip for a Sunday lunch for 2.
The final conclusion? The mystery remains as to why people are so willing to line up and wait an hour-plus to get in. It’s good, sure, as far as picadas go, but great? Mmm… there’s still room for improvement.
Av. Borgoño s/n
Tel: (56-32) 281-4235