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 Africa. 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’s sun-tanned ass in the north.
While physically it’s the tiny little sweet bread sizzling on a flat top grill next to the huge bleeding hunks that are Argentina and Brasil, Uruguay is no underdog, at least not in the area of enlightened progressivism: in heavily Catholic, often socially conservative South America, they have been ahead of the game in abortion rights, slavery abolition, universal suffrage and marijuana legalization.
Brooklyn, then, and particularly Williamsburg, must have seemed like ideal soil in which to seed 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.
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, whose manufacture is greatly influenced by Lescano and Perez’ grandmothers.
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 gap in the market 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 reportedly 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 restaurateuring and their individual passions, with at least one owner on premises at all times.
The full trio has reconvened for their newest enterprise, which finds itself among diverse company on the perpetually busy corridor of Flushing Avenue: across the street there’s Norwind’s, an upscale-ish Puerto Rican restaurant, and The Narrows, a hip cocktail bar; down the street is Bunna Cafe, a thriving 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 to 4 a.m. on weekends; co-owner/DJ Bruno Gervais masterminds the entertainment that begins not long after the line cooks break out the plastic wrap.
But back to the food: aside from steak and pasta, the menu at Tabaré is haunted, in a good way, by the Chivito, which could be considered the peak expression of that boundlessly flexible culinary wonder which some say was gifted to the world by a (probably stoned) English earl.
The mighty Chivito shares with sandwiches in general an origin story of dubious veracity. According to Tabaré owner Lescano, 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 in mad culinary love, and began extolling its virtues far and wide.
Provenance notwithstanding, the Chivito is considered Uruguay’s national dish—something they can look to as something they don’t 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.
“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 grass-fed. 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 an 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 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 julienned 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 on 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 (past military dictatorships notwithstanding) and a sensible, abiding love for meat.
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