Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Boston Bargains: Chacarero

“Going to Chacarero. Any takers?”

Send out a message like this to a number of colleagues, and you’ve got about three seconds before being barraged with multiple responses of gratitude, excitement, eagerness, delight, and of course, their order. There’s really no easier way to earn brownie points in the office.
Now, if you’ve spent any number of years working in downtown Boston, you’re going to know about Chacarero. These sandwiches earned renown here long before I ever called myself a grown up.  Starting with a push cart, baking bread at home, and toting chicken in a cooler, Juan Hurtado is the person responsible for the local fame of a sandwich  often served in a diner-like atmosphere back home in Chile. He later graduated to what was perhaps the shop’s most famous location, a store front facing outward from the old Filene’s building, which was later closed as Filene’s became Macy’s and Downtown Crossing has become the pit that it is today, as in, literally, a gaping hole. Despite the beating Downtown Crossing has taken, and the recent closing of one of its locations on Province Street, Chacarero continues to thrive in the Arch Street location, which is where I went today.
So beyond being a sandwich of Chilean origins, what exactly is a Chacarero sandwich, and why has it become a favorite of lunch crowds? I’d probably say it’s so popular because it’s just so unusual. All of the elements that make up the sandwich are uniquely that of this one little shop, and the combination of the elements themselves are also a little peculiar. The sandwich starts with a soft round bread that is baked up on premise earlier in the day. It’s light, made with cornmeal, and almost cake-like in texture, but still sturdy enough to house all the elements of the sandwich. Starting from the ground up, the bread receives a quick swipe of creamy mashed avocado spread. Then you have a choice of chicken or beef, or the combo of both meats. I always choose the chicken, partially because that was the way that this all started (recall chicken in a cooler on a pushcart), but more importantly because the chicken, always sliced about a quarter of an inch thick and cooked up on a flat top grill, is savory, juicy, and the perfect platform for the other flavors within the sandwich.  From here on in, things get a little kooky. Add two slices of muenster cheese with it’s characteristic red-hued edges, and get ready to spoon on a healthy dose of bright green, Chacarero signature hot sauce.  Tomato slices, salt and pepper… and finally, the weirdo pièce de résistance: fresh, crunchy steamed green beans!
The first time that someone had told me about the green bean sandwich place, I thought they were on drugs. Why would you do something like that? Green beans? Really? Haven’t you ever heard or a funny little plant called lettuce? Well, may all my ignorance be forgiven, because I was wrong to ever question the righteousness of the Chacarero. Beyond the fabulously juicy chicken, the sandwich is simply layer upon layer of interesting and surprisingly harmonious flavors and textures. Every element is essential in order to have that one perfect bite of meat, the spicy, peppery hot sauce, the juicy tomato, the crunch of fresh green beans, and the airy platform of the bread. It’s zesty, fresh, and succulent, and there simply is no substitute when one begins to crave a Chacarero sandwich. The issue, as copy cats throughout Boston must realize deep down, is that if you change one element of the sandwich, it is no longer quite as good. Take, for example, substituting cheddar cheese for the muenster. Or perhaps you try to fancy up this already perfect symphony of flavor and throw everything on a brioche bun instead of that light, round cornmeal bread. It simply doesn’t work as well. Oh, and FYI: 1st sign of a douchebag = taking a classic signature sandwich and throwing it on a brioche.
Let’s be honest… you don’t need much of a nudge to go pop your Chacarero cherry. It’s a good sandwich, and a lot of a good sandwich (trust me, you only need the small, though I have been known to finish off a large staying true to my inner fat kid). Also, for your first time, stick with the original, as tempting as it might be to try the “BBQ” version of the sandwich. By the way, over time inflation has taken its toll a little bit, and presently a sandwich will set you back somewhere around the $7 range. Some would say this is not a bargain, but considering what you get for your purchase, you will enjoy a unique meal for under ten dollars that is incredibly robust in the flavor and quantity categories. I’d call that a bargain. So without further ado, take the Chilean plunge, spread the word, and visit often for a lunch with international flare that Boston has quite the soft spot for.

101 Arch Street
Boston, MA 02108

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