When news broke that an 8.2-magnitude earthquake had struck off Chile’s coast last week, triggering a tsunami, my stomach knotted.
Matt and I lived in Santiago for three months last fall. The country—and many places along its long coastline—had become dear to us.
Think of Chile as South America’s California. The two share extreme geographic variety—from snow-capped mountains to two of the world’s driest deserts—plus thousands of miles of surf.
But all that coastline is vulnerable, especially since Chile, like Cali, is at high seismic risk. Five people died in last week’s earthquake aftermath. It was an astonishingly low toll for a deep-water quake that big.
I’d been especially fearful for the coastal cities of Viña del Mar and Valparaiso. Both are Chilean gems, and they’re just an hour or so from Santiago. Bonus: the drive takes you through the Casablanca Wine Valley, which just begs for tours and tastings.
I’d call Valpo the San Francisco of Chile. Its colorful houses climb the hillsides up from the bay. But with murals on every other building, it’s funkier, shabbier, and more bohemian. That’s why Valparaiso made the ideal retreat for a poet like Pablo Neruda.
If you’ll forgive the Florida rather than California comparison, Viña feels more like pastel Fort Lauderdale at first, with its high-rise condos and groomed ocean walk. But there are excellent beaches, a favorite quirky sight, and some worthwhile eating there, too.
Head north of the town’s heart, where the shore gets rockier and wilder. You can spy on sea lions there. They look like toddlers, sliding down rocks and tumbling into the ocean, but they bellow like grunting old men. It’s a funny audiovisual combo.
The glory of this beach trip, though, is the food. For my money, the bay around Valpo and Viña has the best empanadas in Chile. Given that empanadas are the unofficial Chilean national food, that’s saying something. Most shops have standard fillings to this fried-dough pie: meat, melted cheese, and the occasional veggie.
But Entremasas, with several Viña-area locations, has more than 40 inventive filling combinations. Crab, cilantro, goat cheese, walnuts, and spinach are winners among them.
There’s even manjar. The sweet caramelized milk sauce is called dulce de leche in the rest of Latin America, but Chileans are so obsessed they have a special word for it. Manjar is another national addiction, but we didn’t see empanadas and manjar married anywhere else. Imagine a McDonald’s apple pie filled entirely with caramel, and you’ll understand the messy situation our sugar-loving friend Lanie Abisdris found herself in.
The empanadas are perfect for a seaside picnic. Along with our friends Will Schwartz and Lanie, we took ours along when we watched the sea lions.
The don’t-miss culinary highlight of Viña, however, was dinner at Dal Cuore. Chef Dessio Andreani, whose family came to Chile from Italy, runs this Mediterranean-Peruvian fusion kitchen. Dal Cuore means “from the heart” in Italian, and the Andreanis really will treat you like family.
The imaginative food, however, outshines even the hospitality. Dessio trained at La Mar, one of Lima’s finest seafood restaurants. Now he melds Italian ingredients with Peruvian and even Asian flavors.
Highlights included crispy pizza rolls filled with creamy avocado, cheese, and shrimp. And spaghetti nikkei, which tosses spaghetti in a wok with shrimp, chicken, beef, squash, and onions.
Then there was my favorite, octopus sorentino. Imagine bigger ravioli, black and briny-tasting from squid ink, filled with octopus and topped with a clam cream sauce. The taste is deep ocean. Dessio says he uses some of his Italian grandmother’s sauce recipes; I’d bet this cream sauce is one of them.
Eight of us sat down at Dal Cuore, including our friends John and Kate Robertazzi, Jill Walters, and Katie Beltrone. We ate with Dario Andreani, a wonderfully hospitable English-speaking entrepreneur who often translated for his chef brother.
Dario took us through the finer points of Chilean vs. Peruvian pisco, the national alcohol both countries claim. Peruvian pisco has the sting of a straight-grain alcohol, like Italian grappa or Irish poteen. Chilean pisco tastes more golden, with whiskey elements. So Peruvian cuisine rightfully gets the glory, but Chile wins the spirit round.
The enterprising Dario already holds a master’s in marketing. Now he’s interested in an American MBA, and we tried to persuade him to consider schools like Notre Dame. But like I said, that California-Chile connection runs deep. Dario only wants to study at Stanford or Berkeley.