When Juan Thompson and his family left Santiago, Chile, in 1975, they didn’t know it would be 15 years before they returned to their homeland. They didn’t go back until 1990, when his parents decided to stay.
“My parents, they wanted to try Chile again,” he said. He returned with his family to the United States. But his parents’ happy return only lasted three years. “I went back in 1993, because my dad passed away. He wanted to be buried in Chilean soil. He never got to experience the Chile he remembered.”
Thompson’s mother returned with him to the United States and is now a fixture in the kitchen at Patagonia Grill, the South American restaurant that he and his wife opened two weeks ago.
“She enjoys being here, doing some cooking that she loves to do. This is a dream for us from the first day we came to this country,” he said. “My father first said it: We should open a restaurant for our food.”
After years as an electrician, which included a job with the city of Augusta, Thompson owned a lawn-care business for 10 years. But such jobs are undeniably difficult and dangerous, and at last the Thompsons decided it was time.
“It’s time for me to replace my boots for nice shoes, my dirty clothes for clean ones, and making sure that my wife does not complain that I smell,” he laughed.
So they created the plan for their new restaurant, named after the southern portion of the continent, where the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans scrape Antarctica. The menu features the things for which the region is famous: Argentinean beef, Chilean seafood, wines from both countries and South America’s ubiquitous stuffed pastry called empanadas.
“I want to make a statement. This is a cultural restaurant. We want to give something different to Augusta,” Thompson said. So don’t look for the things people generally associate with South America. “No offense to the Mexicans, but this is not a Mexican restaurant.”
Don’t ask for tacos, but by no means does that make the menu as hard to navigate as the Perito Moreno Glacier. The names of the dishes may be unfamiliar, but the ingredients are not. The cuisine of the region differs with the terrain. From the Chilean coast in the west, through the Andean Mountains, to the Argentinean coast in the east, the dishes of the region include fresh fish and shellfish, lamb, beef, rice and pastries. Even when the ingredients are unfamiliar — such as chimichurri, an herbed sauce as common in the region as A-1 is in America — Thompson assures that the menu has been appropriately tweaked toward the American taste buds.
“The same things that the Mexican restaurants did,” he said. Most of the time, it’s simply substituting one ingredient for something similar but more palatable, such as taking blood sausage from the signature parrillada and replacing it with chorizo or other kinds of sausage. The menu is also heavier in beef than on goat and lamb, which are eaten more in the steppes of the rocky Andes, where cattle fear to tread.
Meals begin with sopapillas, and not the kind at Vallarta’s that are slathered in honey and cinnamon — although they’re great too. These sopapillas are small, about the size of a hockey puck, and fried until crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. They’re served with chimmichurri and pebre, a chunky mixture of fresh tomatoes, onions and peppers that is similar to pico de gallo. The menu explains unfamiliar dish names, but even the least adventurous eater can find something to enjoy here, because as it turns out, Argentinean cuisine includes a great deal of pasta, including a tomato sauce called marinera that differs essentially in spelling alone from the Italian marinara. Thompson said that there is a large European influence in the region, and points to his own last name as evidence of that.
“My last name is Thompson, and maybe 90 percent of all the Argentineans have a European last name,” the Chilean native said.
Because Argentina proclaimed neutrality during both world wars, anyone wishing to leave the continent for less-conflicted regions could consider resettling there with few political ramifications in their home country. It wasn’t the same as immigrating to the United States, which had made enemies of half a dozen nations. Many French, Italian and German citizens chose South America. The result is a fragrant and flavorful mixture of spices and winemaking and cooking techniques.
As it turns out, Thompson and his wife, Ana, are high atop Trend Mountain. Upscale Peruvian cuisine has been topping the hot lists for a couple of years, and experts say that Patagonia is the next exploitable restaurant resource — even though Thompson describes meal times in Sur de America as less formal than the Bravo Network’s latest “Top Chef” may want you to think.
“You get your family together and you cook a big amount of meat. You drink wine and eat bread,” he said.
And residents are hungry for the dishes Patagonia Grill has to offer. In two weeks, word of mouth has brought in a parade of people.
“They say, ‘We’ve been waiting on you for a long time,’” he said.
Wait no more.
Patagonia Grill is located in the Liberty Square Shopping Center at 4460 Washington Road in Evans. The restaurant is open from Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 706-860-3855.