I was warned to be very cautious when consuming seafood in Chile, so when visiting the Mercado Central-- a bustling fresh seafood market in Santiago-- and you can’t help but have a big seafood lunch, it’s wise to choose the oldest and perhaps most well-known eating establishment. Donde Augusto is located in the center of the Mercado Central, a 1872 structure designed by Gustave Eiffel (yup that Eiffel). Although prices here will run a bit higher than some of the market’s smaller cafes, it’s worth knowing you won’t be losing your lunch later.
Augusto, the jovial, eponymous owner of the restaurant has been working at the Mercado Central for 56 years. Beginning at the age of nine and spending the first 30 years as a fruit and vegetable vendor, he’s spent the last 26 operating his restaurant at the market and expanding to various other locations throughout the city.
“I started with fourteen tables. Now I have 2,000. I began with seven employees. Now I have 200. I started with one wife and I still have the same wife,” he laughs. But this is no joke, his wife still commands Donde Augusto’s kitchen while he mingles in the front of house.
Steaming plates of food whisked around the crowded tables. Our lunch was a buffet of delectable seafood dishes: chilled ceviche, steamed king crab, razor scallops with melted parmesan, oysters, and some of the best grilled shrimp I’ve ever tasted. All was washed down with a strong pisco sour-- the drink of Chile-- and a local cerveza, a delightful pale ale with lots of flavor.
Next came a plate of different types of grilled fish: salmon, sea bass, and conger eel. Augusto says the dish of the house is the congrio or conger eel, and it’s hard not to agree. Grilled to perfection in a butter sauce, the fish melts in your mouth. One word of advice if you decide to stroll and eat at the Mercado Central: eat first, stroll later. I don’t think I would have sampled the conger eel if prior to the meal I’d seen the long, splotchy pink fish giving me a blank stare from a bed of ice.
Donde Augusto is a great place to sample local color and local cuisine. Too full for dessert, but fully satisfied, I took one bite of cake and then threw in the towel, or rather, the napkin.
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