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Eat Like a Montevidean at Uruguay Café + Where to Watch the Uruguay Game (updated)

empanadas - beef (left), chicken (right)
empanadas - beef (left), chicken (right)
Jim Thurman

Update: Uruguay Café closed in late 2010.

With the World Cup in full swing, it's time to welcome the cuisine of yet another country to the Los Angeles food scene, that of Uruguay. This nicely coincides with La Celeste, Uruguay's national team, advancing to the round of 16.

Located in South El Monte, among pho restaurants and adjacent to a small Vietnamese shopping center, the Uruguay Café is easy to miss. Owner Javier Rodriguez, who is from Montevideo, opened the tiny restaurant in December, the only one of it's kind in greater Los Angeles. The menu features a small selection of national dishes, which are listed as house specials.

Those familiar with Argentinian cuisine will note the similarities, particularly in two areas : the presence of empanadas and an abundance of items featuring beef. But, there are some distinctions to the food from the other side of the Rio de la Plate. The empanadas served here are fried, as per tradition, and come in five varieties: beef, chicken, ham & cheese, tuna, and spinach. The fillings are well seasoned without being spicy and at $1.49 each, or a dozen for $16, it's hard to go wrong.

Other pastries are also on the menu: pascualina, a thin puff pastry filled with spinach, onion, bell pepper, and hard boiled egg; and torta atun, a puff pastry filled with tuna.

Also look for two Uruguayan sandwiches on the menu. The choripan, a chorizo sausage sandwich served with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and chimichurri, the ubiquitous sauce of the region made from olive oil, parsley, garlic and red pepper flakes. And the national sandwich, chivito al pan. Despite the name, it is not goat but beef, specifically Angus steak topped with ham.

Something not to be missed is the Uruguayan national dessert, postre chaja, an angel food cake layered with dulce de leche, cream, peaches and topped off with chunks of meringue. A sure sweet-tooth satisfier, which is not as rich as one would think considering the ingredients.

To complete your regional experience, there is mate cocido, tea made from dried yerba mate leaves, popular in parts of South America. There are three different brands of mate among a small selection of Uruguayan food items (also cookies, dulce de leche, and canned green rice soup) for sale at the counter. Argentinian and Mexican items are also on the menu, and there is also live Uruguayan music on occasion. And, perhaps best of all, the restaurant will open at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow, serving ham & cheese medialunas (croissants) and beverages for the World Cup match between Uruguay and South Korea.

Uruguay Café (closed): 9711 Garvey Ave., South El Monte; (626) 542-3892.

Postre chaja
Postre chaja
Jim Thurman

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