The Food Lab: Chacarero Chileno, a Steak Sandwich as Delicious as It Is Unlikely

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

"You want to go to the chacarero stand today?"

"What's that?"

"It's the sandwich place in Downtown Crossing where they put green beans on it."

"Weird. Let's go."

That was me almost 20 years ago in Boston during my freshman year of college. It was my introduction to chacarero Chileno, the Chilean sandwich of grilled meats and green beans that would become a lunchtime staple for me for the next decade or so. From what Google tells me, that shop is still there (though it seems to have expanded from a street-side window to a sit-down affair), but I haven't had the sandwich in nearly another decade since. I have a strong suspicion that like many of my older taste memories, the idea of that sandwich is probably better than the reality, which leaves me a little hesitant to go back and try it.*

*Can someone from Boston please report back? Is it as great as I remember?

But great taste memories like that, even if they are rose-tinted, offer us another great benefit: they give us a bar to aspire to when recreating the dish at home.

On paper the sandwich seems... weird. Grilled meat, sliced tomato, and cooked green beans. It reminds me of the feeling I get when I eat most burritos: Dang, this stuff would be so much better served separately on a plate. Chacareros are also similar to burritos in that they are typically consumed late at night at neighborhood greasy spoons when you're slightly inebriated. All I can tell you is, when done properly, it works, and in honor of my memories of freshman-year-me, I decided to head into the kitchen (and out to the patio) to try and bring that vision of the perfect chacarero from my head and into reality.

The Meat

Most recipes for chacarero call for thinly sliced, fine-textured beef like sirloin or round. The problem with these cuts is that no matter how thinly you slice them, they tend to hold together quite well, which leads to the dreaded pull-out: you take one bite, and and entire slice of steak comes with you, leaving you with a piece of meat hanging awkwardly out of your mouth and three-fourths of a sandwich with nothing but condiments. To top it off, they aren't even particularly meaty or flavorful cuts.

Instead, I like to turn to more substantially beefy, loosely-textured cuts like hanger, skirt, or flap meat. I happen to live a block away from a Mexican butcher that sells skirt and thinly sliced flap meat for fajitas and tortas, which makes them perfect for this sandwich.

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If shopping at a regular supermarket, ask the butcher if they can butterfly some hanger or flap meat for you. If not, whole skirt steak will work just fine. The key is to pound it nice and thin, to about a 1/4-inch thickness or thinner.

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What I found was that it's okay if the meat starts to shred and fall apart a little when you do this. So long as it can hold itself together on the grill, the looser the better by the time it reaches the sandwich.

As for cooking, the meat is typically cooked on a flat metal griddle, which works fine, but I wasn't particularly pleased with the flavor I was getting out of it. For the moment, I decided to shift focus and work on the sauce.

The Sauce

Chacareros are a greasy-spoon sandwich, which means that mayo out of the tub is typically the only condiment on the bread. But we're making these at home so we can do just a little better, I think.

Making an aioli (AKA garlic mayonnaise) from scratch is one way to go, and it's delicious here. If you want to do just a little less work but still get better-than-jarred results, you can use this little trick:

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Just stir together store-bought mayo with some extra-virgin olive oil and garlic, and season it with some black pepper. You'll get something that tastes almost as good as homemade aioli, but with about 30 seconds of actual work.

As I was making this cheat-y aioli, I realized that this might be the solution to getting more flavor into my meat. My friend Meathead Goldwyn of AmazingRibs.com has recently turned me on to the idea of using mayonnaise as a sort of marinade for meat. Rather than rubbing meat with oil before placing it on the grill, brushing it with flavored mayonnaise can actually improve its grilling qualities quite a bit.

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Because mayonnaise contains both fat and proteins (from the egg yolk), it is great at browning and distributing heat evenly. It's also an emulsion, which means that it's nice and thick and stays put on the surface of the meat, trapping flavorings against it as well. I'd recently tried grilling fish, steaks, pork chops, and chicken with flavored mayo coatings and have had great success with all of them. (Daniel also uses the technique for his broiled salmon.)

Since I already had this garlic aioli made for the sandwich, I decided to try using the exact same mixture as a coating for my steak before grilling it (I also tried it in a pan on the stovetop), blasting them on the highest heat I could muster in order to char them without overcooking.

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It was a smashing success. The mayonnaise browned nicely over the heat of the grill and the meat was able to achieve a nice char wile still remaining a juicy pink in the center—no small feat for such a thin cut of meat! This will probably become my go-to method for grilling thin steaks from now on. (It worked equally well in a cast iron skillet, though it does create quite a bit of smoke that requires a bit of elbow grease to clean up.)

Now it was time for the signature garnish: the green beans.

The Beans

The green beans they served at that old chacarero joint in Boston were drab army green and well past the al dente that restaurant chefs love. Indeed, most recipes call for green beans cooked until fully tender or even soft beans from a can. When I first started thinking about making my own version of this sandwich, I figured that keeping the green beans snappy and fresh would be a no brainer. But as I made a few sandwiches and tasted them, it turns out that snappy and fresh is not always best. When they're crisp, they have trouble integrating into the sandwich.

When tender, however, the beans become part of an integrated whole. Cutting them sharply on a bias makes them a little more manageable as well. The flavor complements rather than competes. And complementing is what good sandwiching is all about. I cooked my beans in a pot of salted water until fully softened, a good two to three minutes longer than I typically would.** I then drained them and ran them under cold water to stop them from cooking any further. (We normally recommend using an ice bath to chill vegetables after blanching, which you can read about here, but since these beans are allowed to be softer than normal, it's not necessary here at all.)

** Just writing about overcooking green beans makes me feel naughty. Is this what people who get off on shoplifting feel as they slip a fidget spinner into their pocket? Sometimes it feels so good to be bad. (In truth, it's not the first time we've broken bad on the green beans front: Daniel has written about his love of overcooked green beans before.)

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Still, there was something missing from the sandwich (and I'm not talking about just the tomatoes). A rich, grilled cut of meat and soft-cooked vegetables need some acidity to balance them out. I scanned my refrigerator for potential candidates and my eyes settled on a jar of pickled peperoncini, which I sliced thinly and tossed with the green beans. For good measure I also poured in some of the pickling liquid from the jar, letting the bright juices serve as a sort of dressing for the beans.

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It was exactly the kick the beans needed to really pull this sandwich together.

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To serve it, I grilled up some split ciabatta rolls (any hearty, crusty roll will work, such as a kaiser, telera, or a Portuguese roll), then slathered them with mayo before stacking on a few pieces of grilled steak, some thick slices of ripe tomato (which I seasoned with salt, of course***), and a pile of the beans and peppers.

At the chacarero shop in Boston, you could get your top bun spread with smashed avocado, which I actually found almost over-the-top in this case. I preferred my sandwich without it. But feel free to smash away your future of home ownership if you'd like avocado on your sandwich.

*** I have opinions on tomatoes and salt. You can read about them here.

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I closed the sandwich off, giving it a little push to make sure all the ingredients were secure before slicing it in half on a bias (because as we all know, triangles taste better).

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I haven't experienced it in the motherland, but not only am I certain that this sandwich would taste glorious late at night while slightly tipsy in Chile, I am 100% positive that it is delicious even while completely sober in the mid-afternoon in California.

But I'm just one data point. I'm gonna need you all to go ahead and try it out for yourself and report back so that we can get some real data going. Don't do it for me, don't do it for you, do it for science.