Going Crazy for Locos in Valparaiso, Chile
WHAT TO EAT: Locos
WHERE TO EAT IT: In Chile but Valparaiso has the best version I’ve tasted
I guess you could say that I’m loco for locos! Crazy for crazy?!Coco for Cocoa Puffs? Huh? What does that even mean? Have I lost my mind? Well, no not yet. I’m talking about locos, a type of shellfish that you can find in Chile. One of my favorite things about Chilean food is the fresh seafood. While the coast is not as bountiful as Peru (the Humboldt current doesn’t stretch that far south), Chile has its fair share of fresh fish and shellfish. Most often it’s prepared the typical Chilean way (read: lots of mayo and avocado-Chileans add those two things to seemingly everything!) but if you are lucky, you can find the seafood prepared just as it was meant to be tasted. Minimal is the way to go to let the flavor of the fresh fish shine. One food we encountered that I had never had prior to my trip in Chile is locos. Did locos go crazy to get their name?
After some brief investigation, it turns out that locos aren’t crazy at all. They are abalone. Well, sort of. Abalone is the name given to any large edible sea snail and locos indeed fall into this category. Locos are more properly known as concholepas concholepas (pretty redundant if you ask me but hey, I can’t even make this stuff up!). Even though abalone and locos are both gastropods, the locos are carnivores which means they lend a more tender texture. You can google abalone to find out more about their whorls & apertures (admittedly fascinating stuff) but I’m not going to get too deep into that here.
I do, however, want to briefly touch upon the controversy surrounding locos. The concholepas concholepas are a highly sought after product by Chilean fisherman. I remember when Laurent and I were visiting the seemingly idyllic, peaceful island of Chiloe in southern Chile, kayaking by dawn, when a war broke out. Yes, you read that right a war! A war over locos. There were guns involved and it did not sound very pretty. During the 70s, there have been various locos wars due to an increased demand. Overfishing is a serious problem that Chile has to deal with, not just with locos but also with salmon and Patagonian toothfish, among others.
There are also many farm fisheries in the country, especially around the Puerto Montt area. In fact, Chile is one of the largest exporters of salmon in the world. When you think of Chilean fish, many of you will automatically think of ‘Chilean sea bass‘, however, they never eat this fish in Chile (unless you are down in Patagonia catching it fresh, & there it is referred to by its real name-Patagonian toothfish).
Chilean sea bass is actually a name that is used to market the Patagonian toothfish to North American restaurants. Most people in fine restaurants do not want to eat something called toothfish. So they coined the Chilean sea bass name. Sounds more elegant, I suppose but it’s not even a bass! This fish is one of the most endangered in the world, so avoid it. Even though this article is a bit dated, it still deals with the same problems faced in Chile today: read more here.
Due to the heavily decreased populations of locos, it is now strictly controlled and forbidden to fish at certain times of the year in specific regions throughout the country. Currently the only legal way for Chilean fishermen to catch locos is to have a Marine Area of Benthonic Resources Extraction permit and the minimum size for extraction is limited to 10 cm. This makes them currently somewhat sustainable (and I use that word extremely loosely here) but illegal fishing is all too common. I wouldn’t make locos part of my everyday diet but I would recommend trying them at least once in your life. They are absolutely delicious and one bite will make you understand why they are a considered a ‘delicacy food’.
The most common way to find locos prepared in Chile is in the dish known as ‘locos con mayo’. It’s pretty much exactly what the name implies: the locos prepared with, you guessed it, mayonnaise. I really don’t understand why Chile seems to have an obsessive, not to mention unhealthy, relationship with this particular condiment and if you live or have ever visited the country, I’m sure you noticed the widespread, and mostly unwelcome, addition to many a dish. Sorry Chile but I just don’t share your inexplicable love and excessive use of mayo.
If you are eager and curious to try locos, I would have to urge you to just say no when it comes to locos con mayo. Instead try to seek out a more natural preparation which allows the tender, mild flavor of the locos to shine. I set about to try and find exactly this and lo and behold, I struck gold in Valparaiso.
Valparaiso is a small city that sits about 3 hours west of Santiago, directly on the western coast of Chile. It’s a colorful, hilly, bohemian city (some refer to it as Chile’s San Francisco-a bit of a stretch there but it’s a charming place all the same). There are some really good eats in Valparaiso. I might even go so far to say that one of the country’s best restaurants can be found here. Espiritu Santos had the preparation of locos I had been dreaming of. A touch of creme fraiche in a butter-lemon sauce, wafer-thin radishes, sun-dried tomatoes, capers & parsley. The most simplest of ingredients perfectly in place to highlight the flavor & texture of the locos.
And for the uninitiated, what do locos taste like? They have a delicate, mild flavor very similar to calamari and maybe even a scallop but not as sweet. When preparing locos it is vital to tenderize the meat by pounding it first and fortunately for our tastebuds, the chef at Espiritu Santos prepared the dish to perfection. The meat was tender and melted in your mouth along with the taste of butter, cream and lemon. The crunch of the radish, the taste of salt from the caper, sweetness from the sundried tomato were all tied together through the herbal notes of the parsley making the locos sing in your mouth. Do not hesitate. If you are in Valparaiso and want to try locos go to Espiritu Santos located at Hector Calvo 392, Valparaiso, Chile.
I thought about posting a recipe for locos but I think that they are hard for people to find, most likely due to their seasonal nature and sustainability issues. You can buy locos online here but best to just plan a trip to Chile, make a stop in Valparaiso, one of my top 10 unmissable destinations in Chile and taste them fresh from the source.