In the storm-tossed Chilean sea lives the rosy conger, giant eel of snowy flesh.
— from Pablo Neruda's Oda al Caldillo de Congrio (Ode to Conger Chowder)
A Chilean acquaintance thinks Pablo Neruda might be the best poet in the world and that Roberto Bolaño is second to none as a novelist. The same fellow fervently believes Pamela's Delicatessen is the best Chilean restaurant in Miami-Dade County. So after enjoying Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, I traveled to Westchester to check out Pamela's. Now I owe him twice.
Pamela Canales has been well known in the neighborhood since she began selling empanadas from her house in 1979. That arrangement sufficed for a dozen years, but ultimately she required a real commercial space. In 1991, Pamela's Delicatessen premiered in its current spot.
Now it's a combination market/bakery/café/full-service restaurant. The first three are housed in the front room: dry food imports on the shelves, breads and wines in wooden racks, a smattering of tables clustered before glowing display cases of coconut-flecked cakes and sugar-dusted alfajores. The adjacent main dining room is a cozy 40-seater that makes guests feel at home via a warm arrangement of Chilean pottery and knickknacks displayed on rustic walls.
The food is homespun as well, beginning with warm marraquetas and a side dish of pebre. The former are pale, French-style rolls that make up 70 percent of all bread sold in Chile. Pebre is a soupy, moderately piquant, salsa-like mix of tomatoes, onions, garlic, cilantro, chili, and vinegar that is traditionally enjoyed not only with marraquetas but also atop empanadas (still a Pamela specialty).
Empanadas here are twice as large as and flaunt a sturdier, paler crust than the flaky, croissant-like Argentine pastry many Miamians are accustomed to. The bulky parcels, priced from $2 to $3.25, feature five types of fillings, including chicken (a tad dry); meat (a "pino" mix of chopped beef with lots of onions, black olives, hard-boiled eggs, the occasional raisin, and an appealing liver flavor); and pink clam with cheese (a yellow, mildly flavored mix of minced razor clams and Parmesan cheese). The pink clams also come baked in the shell and topped with Parmesan — in either format, a surprisingly appealing pairing.
There were all manner of other intriguing starters to sample, although the soup of the day — cream of asparagus — wasn't one of them. It had an off-putting smoky flavor apparently caused by the charred bottom of a pot.
A humita (tamale) brings ground choclo (corn) threaded with basil, creamed, and then steamed. The same herbed masa topping gets baked and bronzed as the crown of pastel de choclo, a Chilean staple that was one of our favorites. Below the corn cap, which forms a dome over an earthenware bowl (called a paila), is a blend of the chicken and pino empanada fillings; the main clues are the black olives, raisins, and hard-boiled egg.
Steak, chicken, or pork a lo pobre are among Pamela's most popular entrées. The treatment translates to a protein topped with fried onions and fried eggs, traditionally accompanied by French fries. We took a poke at the pork pobre: two skinny, broiled chops that, frankly, needed the sweetly sautéed onions and oozy boost of yolk in order to come to life. Big, moist slabs of baked brisket required no stimuli other than roasting juices; a mound of soft, wet mashed potatoes on the side made the dish seem like a supper more common to Syracuse than Santiago. Prices, incidentally, are preciously accessible; almost every main course clocks in under $11.
Congrio (firm, "snowy flesh" of the conger eel) is likewise plated a lo pobre, as well as with crab in creamy white sauce or fried and topped with tomato and onion salad. We liked the last best. A salmon dish is also offered, as are a few grouper preparations — with pink clam sauce, homemade mustard sauce, or with scallops in green sauce.
Pamela's does a hopping breakfast, when patrons hover over steamy cortaditos. Lunch brings the second rush; some come for typical Chilean sandwiches served on pale, crusty circular breads. Choice of stuffings includes thin, juicy churrasco steak and slices of considerably drier pork loin. Tomato, avocado, and mayonnaise are the fixings on these and most sandwiches. The same ingredients form the traditional topping for the Chilean hot dog, called a completo, which is also served here. (With the addition of sauerkraut, it becomes a "classic completo," not currently available at Pamela's.) "Barros Jarpa" (hot ham and cheese) and "Barros Luco" (hot beef and cheese) are named, respectively, for former Minister Ernesto Barros Jarpa and his cousin, former President Ramón Barros Luco, who would frequently — presumably very frequently — order what would become their namesake sandwiches when lunching in the restaurant of the National Congress of Chile.
The wine list, though concise, encompasses enough Chilean choices to suit most patrons. You can order from the menu or, better yet, get up and check out the bottles offered in the front room. Choose one and pay retail plus a corkage fee of $4 to $8 (the latter price for the top-line $60 to $70 wines). Pamela's also puts out potent flutes of pisco sours for just $4.50 apiece.
Solid service? Enough fresh, homemade desserts to stock a small bakery? Check and check. The former features an effortless blend of friendliness and finesse; the latter showcases a whole lot of dulce de leche-based treats. Try a wedge of milojas, whose caramelized milk mortars multiple penny-thin layers of crusty cracker dough. A slice of soft, coconutty pineapple cake would prove a fine finale too.
Alas, there is no caldillo de congrio on hand to inspire a Nerudaesque ode ("the tender eel glistens, prepared to serve our appetites"). In every other way, however, Pamela's Delicatessen is a paean to Chilean cuisine.