Snapshots from Venezuela: Chipi's Burger

Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of posts from A Hamburger Today reader Leonardo U. It's a snapshot of burgers in Venezuela and is quite fascinating. Enjoy! —Adam

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY LEONARDO U. | Continuing on my Venezuelan burger pilgrimage (which started here), I take you to Chipi’s. In the late nineties, the chain was at least six locations strong all over Caracas. It had more than 200 employees and its own production facility outside of Caracas in charge of providing quality control and feedback to the chains. These days, it seems that Chipi's has dwindled. Nevertheless, the one I visited delivered surprising quality, despite the location's outward appearance.

I spotted this place while walking through a mall in a central Caracas neighborhood called La Castellana. It looked like a Wendy’s or McDonald’s knock-off, so I disregarded it. After asking around about it, though, I received good feedback. So I go into the restaurant and see a lot of people of varying classes—always a good sign. My eyes gravitate to the two flame broilers between the ordering line and the waiting area. There's also a salad and sauce bar that takes one entire wall of the restaurant—all to top your cooked-to-order burger once it’s ready. The salad bar boasts a selection of about 20 sauces, various types of potato chip garnishes, and pickled toppings—in addition to the usual lettuce and tomato fare.

20071102chipistall.jpgDoing some quick online research afterward, I found very little (and very dated) information on Chipi's. What I did find was one comment from 1999 by then head of marketing at Chipi’s, Alicia Otero. It was right on point. She said, "This is the valuable difference with our product—a hamburger tailored to the customer’s wants.”

When I head up to the line, I’m flabbergasted. This is the first time in a few weeks I have the option to pay for a burger with something other than cash. Chipi's even has those keychain credit card tapping things there. I look over the menu and realize the options available. It’s a lot and I won’t go over it. I’m overwhelmed. I’m at the register and ask not for a quarter-pounder ... wait for it ... but a half-pounder. I stand there again perplexed for another moment when the employee asks me how I would like it cooked. I blink once and reply in Spanish with a kamikaze attitude, “Bloody, please.” I actually order the complete meal, which comes with a refillable soda of choice and, get this, yuca-root fries.

I wait in front of a thick glass partition near the broilers and watch, nose-to-glass à la Homer Simpson, as the staff cooks the all-beef patty, places it on a classic sesame seed bun, and passes it onto a tray that also holds my warm yuca fries and empty cup. This, so far, is the closest I’ve gotten to the plain American burger in the bun in Venezuela.

I go to the sauce and salad bar for trimmings. I throw on some alfalfa, figuring my system will need it for this one. I put on the required lettuce, tomatoes, and raw onion ringlets. Now, this is a classic cafeteria salad bar line. I’m stopped in my tracks when I see all the condiments and sauces that are offered. As I stare, people just pass me by without a worry, going for their favorites. I take about four little sauce cups and fill them up with various dressings—garlic sauces, curry sauces, and mustard variations, to name a few. It was more reminiscent of a Belgian pommes frites place than a burger-topping bar.

For most burger places in Venezuela, I would tell you to tell them to throw everything on there. As I mentioned in my last entry, it's a window onto the local eating customs. You get an idea of what regional preferences are by seeing what each place includes or leaves out. For the Chipi's half-pounder, I would not recommend this—especially if you’re a finicky eater. Not being one myself, I go at it like a rack of ribs.