On a map, Uruguay looks like a chipped shark tooth embedded in South America’s lower right flank, the legacy, perhaps, of an attack by a hungry but over-ambitious great white the size of Asia.  That’s an apt bit of fancy, as the Uruguayan diet is famously carnivorous, with grass (NOT corn) fed beef dominating tables from Montevideo and Punta del Este in the south to where the serrated tip of the tooth sinks into Brasil in the north.

While physically it’s the tiny little sweet bread sizzling on a flat top grill next to the huge bleeding hunks of brisket that are Argentina and Brasil, Uruguay is no underdog. Better to consider the country of beef eaters something of an over-cow, if only in terms of enlightened progressivism: in heavily Catholic South America, they have been ahead of the game in slavery abolition, universal suffrage, abortion rights and marijuana legalization. Oh, and smoking laws.

Brooklyn, then, and particularly Williamsburg, must have seemed like deal soil in which to plant a Uruguayan restaurant and have it flourish. Ten years on, Tabaré, one of the scant few of its kind in the whole five boroughs, has withstood well the hurricane force gales of NYC’s restaurant industry – so well, in fact, that its trio of owners have decided to open a second location in Bushwick.

Image courtesy of Tabaré

Anybody carrying even a trace amount of Italian blood tends to loudly trumpet their ethnic provenance to the hills; people with Irish blood do so, as well, but wannabe Gaels rarely boast about their country’s culinary heritage. Two of Tabaré’s three owners, Ramiro Lescano and Diego Perez, are Uruguayans of Northern Italian extraction, but instead of bragging about that heritage and its famous gustatory cornucopia, they let Tabare’s food tell the story for them; it’s a tale written primarily in the ink of in-house pastas and accompanying sauces, most of which flow directly from Lescano and Perez’ nonnas.

Lescano and Perez came together with the third member of the Tabaré triumvirate, Parisian Bruno Gervais, in the mid-00s. All three were busboys at Max, a now defunct Italian restaurant in the East Village. (While not of Uruguayan origin, Gervais worked as a DJ in Montevideo for ten years; it was there that he and Perez met and became a couple.) Exploiting a market gap is always a good place from which to start a business, and in 2010 Gervais, Lescano and Perez noticed one they were uniquely suited to fill; the only Uruguayan restaurants in New York were a couple of sad affairs in Queens they deemed as not properly representing the country’s offerings. In 2010, they opened Tabaré to rectify matters (in a Williamsburg space formerly occupied, oddly enough, by a Paraguayan restaurant), and after a handful of years, its staying power was assured. Since then, the three men have divided their time between restauranteuring and their individual passions, with at least one owner at the restaurant at all times.

The “band” has reconvened for their newest enterprise, which finds itself among good, diverse company on the perpetually busy corridor of Flushing Avenue, near the corner of Wilson, in the spot formerly occupied by Lua Bar. Across the street there’s Norwind’s, an upscale-ish Puerto Rican restaurant, and The Narrows, a hip cocktail bar; down the street a couple of blocks is Bunna Cafe, a wonderful vegan Ethiopian restaurant with live music.

Size and hours of operation are the two main differences between the Bushwick Tabaré and its progenitor in Williamsburg. The new space is roomier, and, most importantly, has a much larger grill. As a result, Tabaré’s Bushwick menu (overseen by executive chef Louis Rodriguez) features an enlarged selection of grilled meats. Also, the new location’s liquor license allows closing time to move all the way to 4 a.m. on weekends; Bruno Gervais, also a DJ of some renown, is the mastermind behind the entertainment that begins  after the line cooks break out the plastic wrap.

But back to the food: aside from steak and pasta, the table at Tabaré is dominated by what could be considered the peak expression of that culinary wonder which may or may not have been gifted to the world by a hungry, ingenious English earl.

But back to the food: aside from steak and pasta, the table at Tabaré is dominated by what could be considered the peak expression of that culinary wonder which may or may not have been gifted to the world by a hungry, ingenious English earl.

The mighty Chivito (which means little goat) shares with sandwiches in general an origin story of dubious veracity. According to Lescano, who was interviewed for this article, a woman from a goat-loving mountainous region in Argentina arrived exhausted at a restaurant in the coastal Uruguayan city of Punta del Este, some time in the early 1960s. She requested the chef make her a goat sandwich; the chef obliged, but goat not being available, he instead hammered some beef thin and coated it in spices to disguise its bovine qualities. Then he added mozzarella, bacon, olive, tomato, mayonnaise, peppers, onions, ham and a fried egg. With all those accoutrements, the traveler was none the wiser as to the variety of mammal being consumed. She apparently fell madly in love with it and began extolling its virtues far and wide.

Dubious provenance notwithstanding, the Chivito is considered Uruguay’s national dish – the one thing they can look to and assert isn’t something they share with Argentina. Asked about his country being often conflated and/or confused with its hulking neighbor to the south and west, Lescano waxed humble, which is apparently a common Uruguayan characteristic.

“To be honest, our cuisines are very similar,” laughed Lescano. “Both have a lot of Spanish and Italian influences, and touches from the rest of South America. But where we differ, aside from the Chivito, is the fact that almost all our beef is still grassfed. In Argentina they’ve started to do corn fed beef. We serve only grass fed beef imported from Uruguay at Tabaré.”

For Lescano, what makes a Uruguayan restaurant true to the culture isn’t just food and drink, but an atmosphere of inviting, convivial hospitality. Enhancing this bonhomie is a daily Happy Hour special (5-7 p.m.): 5$ glasses of wine and cocktails (several which feature the famous Gaucho tea yerba mate) and half-off all bottles offered by the glass. Wednesdays see that deal extended from open to close. In addition, brunch is served on weekends. Expect, among other things, gramajo, a peasant dish of julienne potatoes and vegetables, tossed with scrambled eggs. Finally, adhering to another tradition born of bare pantries, dishes of toothsome potato gnocchi will be in the offing the 29th of every month (save non-leap-year February’s, presumably). It’s a  rustic bit of tradition Tabaré diners will have the chance to share with citizens of a country whose modest size and self-deprecating nature belie a wealth of right-headedness (military dictatorships notwithstanding) and a sensible, abiding love for meat in all its gory, gorgeous manifestations.


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