A history of the completo: Chile’s fundamental fast food experience

A jaw-slathering catastrophe of the wettest, wildest hotdog you’ll ever attempt to consume, the Chilean delicacy is a gastronomic phenomenon that plasters the streets of the Andean nation and flies in the face of the traditional dominance of global fast food brands.

completo550

If all roads once led to Rome, in Chile they now lead to the completo. It´s not fancy, it´s not complicated and it certainly isn´t haute cuisine, but the sight of a local doing battle with this magnificent Latin American hotdog is as essential to the Chilean experience as are the peaks of the Andes.

Luis Tolosa, who spins completos at sandwich bar Il Successo (Av. Bernardo O’Higgins 103, Santiago) has been making them for 17 years. While chatting, he has about 15 on the go and proudly says he can turn out up to 120 in an hour. Cafes like these line the streets of Chile’s capital, Chileans crowding the white-tiled counters with their bottles of ketchup, mustard and extra mayo.

And that’s just the indoor completo-makers. Victor Echeverria and his wife Oriana Henriquez own the popular open air completo cart Sabores de Bellavista on the corner of Santiago’s two main party streets, Bellavista and Pio Nono. A hotdog powerhouse, the cart routinely sells up to 1,400 completos per business day, open 23 hours of the day and closing just at 8am to restock for an hour.

Within two blocks of Sabores de Bellavista, night owls can find around 15 other carts lined up on any given night, catering to young people fortifying themselves before or after a night out.

“It’s traditional,” Henriquez says. “People who come from the university, people who go dancing—they’re all going to end up with a completo at some stage in the night.”

Sergio Mundaca, a law student at Universidad de Chile, ate his first completo at the age of five. “It’s a mark of pride, really,” he says, putting in an order for a fully loaded Clásico. Asked to explain the completo’s popularity, his answer is simple, if slightly over-optimistic: “It has meat, vegetables, bread. It’s a full meal.”

Luis Tolosa of Il Successo has a more simple explanation: “They’re cheap.”

Managing to eat one

Confronting your first completo is no easy task. In its purest form, the Clásico, it comprises a vienesa sausage – similar to the American frankfurter – nestled in a bun and slabbed with huge quantities of sauerkraut, avocado and mayo. The more romantically inclined might chose the Italiano, with the red, white and green of tomato, mayo and avocado. A handful of minimalists request nothing more than avocado on their vienesa.

Standing at a street stall watching a gruff completo chef pull together the enormous, loaded sausagey delicacy, the mound of calories that awaits you is truly intimidating. Where did it come from? Why the excess? And, most importantly, how will you ever manage to eat the thing?

Like any rite of passage, the first mouthful is equal parts wonder, shame, fear and pride. Each bite will bring it dangerously close to collapse, but, as you wipe the contents off your face, you’ll understand precisely why Chileans consume thousands—perhaps millions—of completos each day.

History or legend?

The completo is an inescapable part of Chilean life, but information remains scarce about its origins in the country. Asked where his beloved Italiano comes from, Sergio Mundaca is flummoxed: “I don’t know… Italy?”

Most agree that completos have their origins in the American hotdog: “They had the hotdog and the bread,” says Oriana Henriquez of Sabores de Bellavista. “But we added the toppings.”

Its arrival in Chile as the completo occurred around 1920, according to a 2003 report in Chilean newspaper La Cuarta, when businessman Eduardo Bahamondes Muñoz opened a cafe near Santiago’s central square, Plaza de Armas.

Selling an exciting new snack he had encountered on a trip to the United States, the ‘hotdog’, his cafe “Quick Lunch Bahamondes” became an immediate success. Other hotdog bars began to appear, with vendors adding traditional local toppings – above all, the ubiquitous avocado – and before long completos were being sold all over the city.

For most Chileans, however, history matters little. The completo is a thing of the present – full of possibility and potential, always evolving, always there and ready to eat. Sabores de Bellavista adds its own touches, the option of chorizo instead of a vienesa, and six flavors of mayo mixed fresh each morning. Others do the same, adding to the indefinable nature of this ultimate street snack.

The completo,” says Sergio Mundaca, as his brimming Clásico arrives over the counter, “is just part of life.”