From the outside, Montevideo, Uruguay's Mercado del Puerto looks like any other tourist trap: a pavilion surrounded by vendors at kiosks flogging everything from tat to genuine Uruguayan crafts. At the entrance, an energetic duo of guitarist and tamboril player made the mood festive on a warm, sunny January afternoon.
Inside, this mercado is a palace and paean to meat. With its arching glass roof and ornate metalwork structure, the building is reminiscent of the grand Victorian-era railway stations of Paris. By the time the sunlight from above reaches the ground floor, it has been filtered and diffused by smoke that glazes the glass above, fills the entire hall, and billows out of windows and entrances to the street outside.
On that smoke floats the aroma of grilling meats, seafood, and vegetables from such colorfully named restaurants as El Perro que Fuma and El Peregrino. This is not a place for electric grills, propane, or even charcoal. The dozen or so restaurants share one common element: open, wood-fired blazes over which delectables of many sorts – steaks and sausages, kebabs and crustaceans – sizzle and spark.
Despite the similar menu options from one purveyor to another, you can have quite varied dining experiences. Some places are small, family operations with counter seating only. Others have put as many white tablecloth-topped tables in the open central area – and above – as possible. A few at the corners have enclosed dining rooms.
No doubt each place has its local reputation. In the absence of specific reviews or research, we recommend you wander through the place, take in the scene, and note which establishments are busiest at and after peak meal times – and which offer the greatest variety of sides, if you want something other than pommes frites with your grilled treats.
No carnivore could resist this place. The beef kebab we ordered at a corner counter perch arrived hot and tender, with just the right amount of flavorful char. Beyond the food, the people watching – from a polyglot of tourists and locals to career waiters and parrilla masters – was equally enticing.
Mercado del Puerto's location on Montevideo's Ciudad Vieja waterfront, just a few blocks from the maritime passenger terminal, makes it easy to find and gives a feel for the history of a metropolis to and from which goods flow by sea into the city's markets and beyond to satisfy a multitude of appetites.