As the qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup played on a dining room TV, the atmosphere inside La Milanesa Restaurant and Grill made it seem like the eatery had been transported from its Northeast San Antonio strip center into another country.
Jersey-wearing fútbol fanatics clustered around the screen, voices rising as the game heated up onscreen. The Uruguay-born chef is known to run out of the kitchen, screaming “Gol!” after his preferred team scores.
“This is basically our little corner or Uruguay or Argentina for whoever comes in,” said Octavio Millan, owner of the newly opened La Milanesa, 3261 Nacogdoches Road, which specializes in the cuisine of the two South American countries. “You can come here and find everything you grew up with, everything you haven’t tasted in a while. It’s your corner just for that.”
A native Uruguayan, Millan was tired of driving to Houston every time he wanted food traditional to his culture. After 18 years in the United States, he decided that if no one else would open a Uruguayan restaurant in San Antonio, he’d do it himself.
So far, it’s been a tough dream to follow. Three weeks after the restaurant’s difficult February opening, he was forced to put a temporary pause on business due to the citywide COVID-19 shutdown.
But Millan has struggled through, saying the restaurant is more than a business venture — it’s about pursuing a passion. His vision was to create a second home for San Antonio’s South American community, which is accustomed to traditional food, tango music and lots of soccer.
“San Antonio is a very diverse city, and we wanted to add a bit of our culture here as well,” he said.
Family, food and community
Running La Milanesa is a family affair. Millan and his wife Iberia created dishes based on the food they grew up with in Uruguay. Their five children, who help as servers and with daily operations, were raised on their recipes.
“What we care about the most is that our food is cooked exactly as it would be cooked at home,” Millan said.
Francie, the Millans’ middle child and the first in the family to be born in the U.S., is the current Miss San Antonio Teen USA, a title she uses as a platform to represent Latinx culture in the community. A world languages student at Northwest Vista College, she translated for her father during this interview.
“I’ve learned more about my culture and where I come from since the restaurant opened,” she said. “This is the closest thing I’ve gotten to experience that resembles what my parents grew up with.”
Uruguayan and Argentinian food bear many similarities. La Milanesa’s namesake dish is a breaded meat cutlet that’s popular in both countries.
There are many takes on the dish, which was brought to South America by Italian immigrants. The restaurant’s Milanesa Napolitana marries Uruguayan and Argentinian styles by adding tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, ham and a fried egg.
Its La Milanesa Texana adds a local spin by topping the thin cut with homemade barbeque sauce.
“We wanted to give people something they could familiarize themselves with, while still daring to try something new,” Octavio Millan explained.
Millan said he’s been surprised by the number of non-Latinos who have become regulars at La Milanesa. And while there is something for everyone on the menu, South American immigrants have been its core clientele, drawn by a sense of community.
“One day we had an older woman who came in for the first time. While she was eating, we started playing tango, and she immediately started crying,” Millan said. “She said, she had not heard music like that since she was young and living in Argentina. The memories were rushing back from her childhood.”
‘Never give up’
“In Uruguay, we grew up with the culture of soccer that told us to never give up,” Millan said. “Even if the rival is 10 times stronger, it is 10 times better for us.”
That lesson in resilience has come in handy. The COVID-19 pandemic has so far kept the new restaurant from breaking even. But in Uruguayan spirit, Millan turns to the soccer field for inspiration.
“If you are Uruguayan, your dream is to become a professional soccer player,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of them are behind that dream, but the dream itself is what maintains you.”
Chasing a dream teaches hard work, Millan added. He hopes his entrepreneurial pursuit shows that to his children.
Francie Millan, who created a self-empowerment organization during the COVID-19 pandemic called Powerful and Empowered, said she wouldn’t be where she is now if it weren’t for her father’s example.
“I tried to win Miss San Antonio Teen USA for three years, and I thought I would never be able to reach it,” she said. “My dad told me if that’s my dream, I have to work 10 or 20 times harder. So I did, and it turned everything around.”
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