It’s a curious mix: a swarm of wholesalers and retailers, nannies and restaurant owners, peppered with a few passed out drunks and laughing children all surrounded by mounds of citrus fruits and brown eggs stacked high. The snow-topped mountain backdrop lends a surreal quality to the approximately eight square blocks of La Vega Grande. The men on pedal-powered moving trucks hurtle through the precarious pathways looping between people and produce. For some reason, here surrounded by all this busy-ness, life feels easy. If we are fed and watered, we are okay.
La Vega market in the center of Santiago de Chile is in non-stop motion, and promises joy to any cook. It is the place for fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, dog food and nearly anything in bulk (legumes, nuts, seeds, flowers, pickles, vinegar, olive oil, eggs, bread, etc.) while saving a lot of pesos. It’s roughly 1/3 lower in cost than most supermarkets. Example: Palmitos (hearts of palm, addictive when dipped in homemade mayonnaise) in a supermarket are $2.500 pesos (about five US dollars) for a large can, but exactly half that at La Vega. It is also fairly cheaper than a local feria (weekly, roving produce sales of fresh goods found in nearly every neighborhood throughout Chile approximately five city blocks in length). There are two ferias per week near my place within walking distance. While the convenience of these spots is their biggest draw, the colorful characters shouting “Dígame casera! Hay lindos tomates!” (We’ve got beautiful tomatoes here!) make grocery shopping fun. But if you need to buy in quantity for a large fiesta or asado (cook-out) La Vega Grande will hook it up.
In contrary to the general rule of Do Not Buy Groceries While Hungry, La Vega is a great place to go on an empty gullet. La Vega Chica is the smaller sister to the big’un, full of inexpensive restaurants vying for your cash. Selecting a spot out of the tumult of venue hawkers shouting their charms to passersby requires fortitude and patience. If the place is packed, it’s gonna be good. At most places you can eat copious amounts of food and feel like you really should pay more. On my last trip we spent twelve dollars between the two of us and had to take home leftovers. Because the food is so inexpensive and the servers work so hard, leaving more than the ten percent standard tip is not a bad idea.
To start, we had a few empanadas with the perfect crust; light, flaky and expertly fried. The jaiba (crab) or camarones (shrimp) with queso (cheese) taste like a heavenly meeting of land and sea every time. We followed these with a Paila Marina (seafood cauldron), an obscenely overflowing steaming stack of mariscos of various types (clam, shrimp, mussels, etc.) in a shellfish broth spiced with garlic, cilantro and herbs a su gusto (to your taste). I recommend a dash of pebre, (Chilean chopped hot salsa) and a good lemon squeeze. The other main dish we snacked on was the fresh-caught reineta or Brama australis. This firm, white fish has very few bones and is only caught off the central coast of Chile. Its delicate flavor goes well lightly breaded and fried, or al vapor, steamed with a bit of cheese, tomato and spinach. Of course it’s simply lovely doused in fresh lemon juice. Ask for some on the side, and you’ll receive about three lemons sliced in half. These main plates came accompanied by a seafood soup and a small Chilean salad with mashed potatoes and bread, as well as overly sweetened juice. Sugar and salt have a great many aficionados in Chile.
The great prices found at La Vega are due to the wholesale nature of the place and the totally no-frills ambiance. The restaurant walls don’t particular gleam, and there is nothing romantic about the place. It is a giant market after all. The tables nearly blend into the kitchen, which is just steps off the walkway leading from one locale to another. The oil, vinegar and lemon juice on every table is usually stored in reused glass juice bottles with a hole gouged into the cap for a just right flow. Ingenious. If you want the glitz, you can buy it in in Vitacura for four times the price. What it does have is quick service, fresh food, cheap prices and energy whizzing through the air. It’s an adventure climbing the winding staircase to the quieter tables above. It’s advisable to choose the places that have a wait, because the regulars know the best places, or the picada, hence the line forming alongside. My stomach never takes that advice, and it nearly always leaves happy.
In addition to wholesale prices on almost anything a successful kitchen requires, there are shoe repair places, specialty cheese shops and bicycle mechanics that will give a decent tune-up for next to nothing. Try combining a bike repair appointment with a cheese-hunting outing (try Quesos Arturito’s, they have swiss, bleu and many others I have yet to see elsewhere at these prices) and a quick fresh, lunch at La Vega Chica, and you’ll feel extremely accomplished and well fed. The non-stop abundance of people watching is just another bonus.