By Chris Chandler
Sergio Urquiza believes there is no finer-tasting meat in the world than the beef cooked by the gauchos of South America. These nomadic cow punchers, horsemen and fighters speared their meat on swords, turned them on a spit over a charcoal fire and brought them to the diners to choose their favorite cuts, slicing them on to their dishes.
There are several very popular chain Brazilian restaurants in downtown Chicago that feature this kind of cooking and serving—called Rodizio—advertising their “Churrascaria.” There is a very good Argentinean restaurant on Southport (Tango Sur) and a place popular with Argentines on Elston (Ñ), but my Argentinean friend Maria Sonduval brought me to Sergio’s Meyer’s Castle, in Dyer, Indiana.
When you take that thirty-minute drive, you will enter the grounds of the replica of a Scottish castle, and be driven to the restaurant on top of the highest hill in sight. Your reservation noted, you will be escorted to your table and presented with a choice of the very best of Argentine cuisine.
Sergio has lived in America since he was a teenager, but he remains an Argentinean in spirit. He is absolutely convinced the food and wine from his country are among the very best that man has yet devised. He imports his charcoal and salt. Americans are somewhat familiar with the flavor given by hickory or mesquite charcoal, he says, but nothing compares to the flavor given the meat by a wood harvested near the Amazon. The salt too has a distinctive flavor, different from traditional North American salt and from “kosher” salt, the only easy alternative. Argentinean salt is the only condiment he adds to his roasting meats.
Aside from the Rodizio, Meyer’s Castle offers other traditional Argentinean dishes, from sea food to pork to chicken. Appetizers include beef empanadas (Maria was delighted by the empanadas), sausage, mussels, shrimp and squid. The lower-level lounge features live music on weekends.
Sergio grew up working on his father’s ranch, doing all the chores that cow hands do. They had a thousand-acre spread, and raised some 300 head of cattle. He was proud of the traditions of the gauchos, those self-sufficient horsemen who rode the Pampas of South America. Mostly Spanish but also Native American, they gained the admiration of the Argentine people by joining in the fight for independence from Spain, especially at the Battle of Salta. Mostly Spanish but also Native American, one suspects native influence on the “Rodizio” style of cooking and serving.
Many of the earliest gauchos started off as cow hunters, but then became cowboys for the huge herds of the Pampas. They gained the admiration of the Argentine people by joining in the fight for independence from Spain, especially at the Battle of Salta, where the rebel commander went into the city disguised as a gaucho to scout out the Spanish defenses.
At 16, Sergio moved to La Marada, California to join his mother. “I didn’t speak a word of English,” he recalls, “and I didn’t set out to live the American Dream because I didn’t know what the American Dream was.” All he knew of this country was from Hollywood movies, and he soon found out reality was much grittier. Going to school and working in a factory, he decided that you either learned a profession or became a peon.
He went to a hair-stylist school run by a Frenchman. “I was good with my hands and had a gift of designing,” he says. The class had the added benefit of having thirty-five women and four men, three of them gay. “It was like being in a candy store,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘this job may be okay after all.’” He ended up being the star of a Spanish-language hair-styling TV show. He ran a salon in downtown Chicago for several years, and then ran one of the first Giordano’s Pizza restaurants.
He and his wife and one son live in the castle, built by an industrialist on a man-made hill. His two other sons live in Chicago, and commute to Dyer. These days, dining in his castle with his wife and sons, he can see the lit grounds outside, and the bustling waiters in the restaurant, and smile at his good fortune.He takes one last bite of his rodizio, with the salt and smoke flavor of home, and lifts his glass of Malbec wine. In many ways, he is living the gaucho life of his father.
Meyer’s Castle Rodizio, 1370 Joliet Street, Dyer, Indiana. (219)865-8452, meyerscastle.com