Vina Del Mar  (1079 Wellington St W, Ottawa - No Website)


Vina del Mar graciously engages you in a meal that is Chilean quality, yet somehow unmemorable. Similar to that of a nice pair of khakis you would wear to the office, they look good, but you just never get compliments about them. Presented by (what seems) a wonderful husband and wife duo, they truly work hard to bring their native culture into the Ottawa restaurant scene in an honest, humble way.

Home style cooking at best, mediocre at worst, the food is anything but flashy. In fact, every main course I saw served that night was, in one shade or another, brown. The use of fresh red pepper, side salads, and herbs really bring the visual appeal, which is otherwise lacking. The empanada that we ordered as an appetizer was plain, but surprisingly soft and tasty. Following this, my pastel de choolo (aka – ‘Shepherd’s pie’) had an excellent corn/beef balance, and served in good portion. Discovering a whole boiled egg and chicken leg hidden below the surface of my meal was a pleasant surprise, but had lost any sense of distinguishable flavour by the time I found them. I can appreciate that this cooking method probably reflects the culture that inspires the dish, but to the average uncultured Canadian like me, it can get boring. If you find yourself in this situation, try asking for some of their spicy Chilean chutney to liven things up.

Probably the most notable thing about this restaurant is the massive collection of eclectic artwork for sale throughout the dining room, but unfortunately, the makeshift décor, tacky television-fireplace, and picnic style tablecloths totally ruin any charm or ambiance that could be had. Solid colour walls emphasizing the unique artwork, nicer tablecloths and chairs, and a 'chef inspired' special would really turn this sleeping restaurant into one of the defining characteristics of Hintonburg.


When the place where we were planning on having dinner turned out to be fully booked (apparently this happens on Saturday nights at 7pm), we stood there in the middle of the road on Wellington Street in Hintonburg, wondering what to do next.  The couple we were with suggested this dive across the street, which apparently served the best Chilean in town.  When you’re expecting gourmet, wood-fire pizza, I gotta say that Chilean food in a sketchy looking restaurant looks about as appetizing as vegetable-flavoured Mr. Noodle.  But we were so hungry, and chances were that any other worth-while restaurant would be booked as well.  So we grudgingly agreed to try Vina del Mar.

When we walked inside, we were greeted by a man who looked like he was the owner of the place, and he sat us at a wobbly table covered in a plastic tablecloth with red checkers.  Looking around, I wondered where the inspiration for the décor came from.  On the walls were paintings by local artists, party decorations hung from the ceiling, and each table had a lit-up glass Christmas tree as its centrepiece.  Loud (Chilean?) music rang from the speakers.  But as I sat there, my senses overwhelmed by all of this environmental stimulus, something started to happen.  I began to love this restaurant.  There was an honesty, a down-to-earth feeling that drew me in, and made me happy to be there.  The tacky decorations, loud music, and enthusiastic attention from the owner all combined into this amazing atmosphere that I wouldn’t have experienced in any North-American style restaurant.  I was so glad that we had agreed to embark upon this international culinary adventure.

Because I’ve never been to Chile, I can’t say if the food was representative of what is actually served in that country, but I can say that it was one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten, and that is no word of a lie.  For starters, we ordered an empanada to share.  I had heard of these savoury pastries before, but I’d never had one.  Boy was I missing out.  So many different, and yet complementary flavours!  Raisins, boiled egg, some kind of amazing ground meat, with all of these spices wrapped into a delicious pastry.  I could have just eaten four of those for dinner, But instead I ordered the pichanga.  The dish looked pretty big on the menu, but I thought if I couldn’t finish it, I could at least bring it home.  Yeah, that didn’t happen.  The dish, or should I say basket, arrived and it just looked like a pile of French fries and onion rings.  But when I pushed them aside, a beautiful world of meat lay underneath.  There was a chicken drumstick, a piece of German sausage, a piece of Spanish sausage, and some spare ribs, all served in this delicious and tantalizing gravy which was amazing to dip my fries into.  I finished that meal faster than I’ve ever finished a meal.  It was so tasty, and even though the meats were all served in the same gravy, they each had a distinct and mouth-watering taste.  I couldn’t have picked a better dish.

I went in with misgivings, and a definite bias against this tiny restaurant, but I came out in love with a restaurant and the culture it came from.  The service was friendly and attentive, the food was amazing and the fact that it was totally unexpected made this surprising Chilean restaurant that much better.  You need to try this place.


(Click to enlarge photographs)

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