Ever since I got to Chile, I always complained about the lack of seafood on restaurant menus. Chile has a coastline that’s as long as the US is wide. There’s no excuse for not having more seafood available everywhere. Whenever I actually found seafood, which was usually at specialty restaurants, I would also complain about the ridiculous prices. Well, today I finally stumbled upon seafood heaven here in Santiago – Mercado Central.
Located just a few blocks north of Plaza de Armas, Mercado Central, built in 1872, was once the main market in Santiago. It’s now a fish market with lots of seafood restaurants inside and a seemingly endless choice of fresh marine creatures ready fill your belly. Locals come here to shop for fish or get a nice lunch.
The center of the market is a touristy area with what seem to be more upscale restaurants and souvenir shops. But around the edges is where the real action takes place. Several stalls of fish vendors are busy filleting the daily catch and preparing shellfish for local consumers and food stalls.
The bustling market is full of men running back and forth with crates and dollies filled with goodies, while restaurant hosts try to nab every visitor that walks by to try “the freshest and most delicious fish for the cheapest prices”.
The smell of all this fresh fish filling my nose got mouth watering, so I decided to seek out the right stall. Some were too posh, others were too empty, but a sweet old lady in what looked like a total dive was the one to convince me to try her “home-cooked” specialties.
I sat down at a table at Los Juanitos, where the woman complimented me on my Spanish after quickly rattling off the daily specials. I took a minute to process and ordered my first dish, a ceviche.
Usually in Chile, when you order ceviche, you are overpaying for a tiny bowl that is gone in just a few bites – anywhere from CLP $5,000 to $10,000. Here, I got a big, filling bowl for just $3,000! And it was delicious – better than any ceviche I’ve had so far in Chile (minus my housemate Alfred’s – a chef from Toronto who claims to make the best ceviche outside of Peru).
I was pretty full after the ceviche, but then I saw my neighbors receive their food. I asked what it was and ended up ordering a bowl. It was called Paila Marina, and is a mixture of eel and all kinds of shellfish (probably six or seven kinds) cooked in a broth in a ceramic bowl and topped with some cilantro. It was so good, I didn’t even have to put lemon on it. It ran CLP $6,500.
I was shown another specialty, locos, which are a shellfish found only along the coast of Chile and nowhere else in the world. They can be eaten in a soup or, surprise, with mayo. Both versions are the most expensive dishes on the menu at CLP $7,000. I passed and promised to come back before I leave Chile.
My total bill including a drink and tip came out to CLP $13,200. Mind you, I ate for two. This is usually what I would pay for just one at other seafood restaurants, so I was very happy with the price. Service was also the friendliest and most attentive I’ve had in Chile. The nice lady was always checking up on me to see if I needed anything, if I was enjoying my meal, and always had a joke to crack.
I highly recommend visiting Mercado Central and seeking out Los Juanitos. It’s located on the west corridor of the fish market. The nearest metro stop is Cal y Canto.